CINCINNATI (AP) — Tea party activists waving flags and signs, singing patriotic songs and chanting anti-IRS slogans held rallies outside federal buildings across the country Tuesday to protest the agency's extra scrutiny of conservative groups.
A crowd packed the sidewalks in front of and across the street from a Cincinnati federal building housing the Internal Revenue Service offices that handled tax-exempt status applications.
"It's going to be up to the grass-roots movement to do something," said Paul Wheeler, dressed in Colonial-era attire with tri-cornered hat and holding a sign saying: "Internal 'Revenge' Service Stop." He said he came from Indianapolis, some 100 miles way, because Cincinnati is "the epicenter of some of the complaints."
IRS officials have acknowledged that some conservative groups received inappropriate attention.
There were also rallies outside IRS offices in Atlanta; Louisville; Chicago; Cherry Hill, N.J.; Denver; Kansas City, Mo.; Helena, Mont.; Philadelphia; Phoenix, and Providence, R.I., among others.
After a short march, activists here filled sidewalks in front of the federal building for about 30 minutes. Some had Revolutionary War-style "Don't Tread on Me" and 13-star U.S. flags, as they chanted "IRS has got to go!" and "Stop the IRS!" Demonstrators also sang "The Star Spangled Banner," ''God Bless America," and other songs.
A handful of activists gave a Federal Protective Service officer a petition calling for the IRS to "cease and desist" and asked him to deliver it to the IRS. The officer later handed it to a man in street clothes farther inside the building.
"I don't know if we made a difference, but I'm sure proud that we all came out," the Cincinnati tea party president, Ann Becker, told fellow demonstrators. There were also activists from other local tea party groups from northern Kentucky and Cincinnati suburbs in the hundreds-strong crowd, among the largest of the protests Tuesday.
Several IRS employees in Cincinnati declined to comment or didn't return phone messages.
In Washington, a few dozen people congregated outside the IRS headquarters, listening to speeches and carrying signs reading "Audit the IRS" and "Don't audit me, Bro."
"I just think what they did was inappropriate and if they were doing this to liberals, I would be out here, too," said Shoshana Weissmann, a Republican and 20-year-old George Washington University student who said she is not affiliated with the tea party. "It's scary to think the IRS is capable of this."
In the Atlanta rally, speakers included Gov. Nathan Deal, who said "you don't have anything to worry about on the state level." Debbie Dooley of Tea Party Patriots said in Atlanta her group spent some $250,000 on legal fees in battling with the IRS, which she said wanted donor and volunteer names and copies of Facebook comments.
Some former IRS staffers say Cincinnati employees shouldn't be vilified. Former senior manager Bonnie Esrig said the office was a nonpolitical environment, and tax-exempt status workloads had soared because of court decisions and rules changes. Esrig, who said she wasn't involved in handling the conservative group applications, said she believed the workers were trying to streamline the research and avoid repetition.
"I don't believe anybody had a political agenda," said Esrig, who retired from the Cincinnati office in January after 38 years to go into consulting.
She and others are skeptical about initial IRS suggestions that a handful of low-level employees were responsible for the practice, saying it's unlikely workers would have developed and followed procedures that focused on conservative groups without any supervisors being aware.
Republicans in Congress are pressing investigations exploring their suspicions that the targeting was politically motivated and involved higher-ups. President Barack Obama's administration has said no senior officials were involved in targeting conservative groups.
Dozens of lunch-hour protesters in Phoenix who waved signs or small American flags included Rick "Buffalo Rick" Galeener, who said he is a disabled Vietnam veteran and "100 percent American patriot."
"If people don't think this didn't come from the top, then they aren't paying attention," Galeener said outside the IRS office.
A Chicago rally of some 100 people was led by former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh, a suburban Chicago Republican who lost his seat in 2012 after being among tea party candidates who won office in 2010. He decried "crimes committed against Americans" and said the IRS targeting should spark renewed interest in the tea party movement.
"Let this day again be the day when freedom-loving Americans stood up and said ... 'I'm fighting,'" Walsh said. "The only way this is going to turn around is if people in the streets take back the country."
Jenny Beth Martin, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, a group that organized protests Tuesday, said the IRS was increasing public sympathy for the tea party.
"The American people see we were targeted, we were discriminated against, and our concerns about a government that is too large are valid concerns," she said in Washington.
Associated Press writers Ben Nuckols in Washington, Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta, Sara Burnett in Chicago, Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Walter Berry in Phoenix and Geoff Mulvihill in Cherry Hill, N.J., contributed.
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