The IRS may be stepping up its targeting of the Tea Party and other conservative groups.

More than 20 Tea Party groups have engaged the American Center for Law and Justice to defend them after the IRS targeted at least 80 groups nationwide with intrusive questionnaires that Tea Party leaders feel violate their First Amendment rights.

The questionnaires were sent out nominally to gather information needed for a decision on the groups’ requests for 501(c)(4) nonprofit status. But the questions have demanded private information regarding topics such as the credentials of board members, volunteers’ resumes, speakers at group meetings and subscriber information from Tea Party publications.

“I think the current administration is using the IRS as its hammer to punish and otherwise illegally investigate those who they perceive to be tea party leaders,” said Marc Harris, 60, a real estate broker and coordinator of the Tea Party of North Orange County, in Southern California.

Harris, who is active in state and national Tea Party organizations, operates from his home office. He has been informed that not only is the IRS auditing him, but a team of investigators will inspect his home on March 22.

Harris said he has been audited before and his case was cleared with no changes, which should have kept him from being audited again for several years. However, he is being audited again, and this time feels different, he said. “This current one is being conducted by a revenue Officer, which is a not-so-subtle implication of a far more serious criminal investigation. … The IRS is demanding a complete audit of every dollar of income and expense, including detailed day-by-day notes and verifications of my activities. Perhaps most troubling is that they have demanded an inspection of my home.”

“… Nearly all of my business activities are home-based. Of course, in ‘verifying’ the percentage of the home that is used ‘for business purposes versus personal use,’ the IRS claims they have a right to search every square foot of your home, including closets, bathrooms, the garage and even the attic.”

Harris has posted blogs at Big Government, the website of Andrew Breitbart, who died recently. He has also attended Tea Party planning conventions and leadership training seminars, and he has helped other people found their own Tea Party groups.

While he holds a number of licenses and engages in a variety of business activities, Harris believes he’s been targeted specifically because of his Tea Party work.

“Everyone I talk to (in the Tea Party) is getting hammered by the IRS,” Harris said. “Statistically speaking, it’s just not likely that the IRS just happens to target 80 to 90 percent of the Tea Party leaders. There just aren’t enough IRS agents to do that. It’s a disproportionate effort.”

“… I believe it is also being done to intimidate other conservative Americans from rising up and speaking out against the liberal Marxist agenda to take down America,” he said.

The IRS investigation of Tea Party and other conservative organizations such as 9-12 groups and Act for America apparently was spurred by a letter from seven Democratic senators that was sent to IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman on Feb. 16.

The letter talks about 501(c)(4) groups and asks the IRS to investigate whether the nonprofit status is being used to fund political campaigns and advertising. It doesn’t explicitly mention conservative groups, but clearly it’s conservatives who have been targeted for the IRS witch hunt, whether that “understanding” was achieved via telephone, email or determined by Shulman himself. IRS rules state 501(c)(4)s are allowed to engage in political activities, so long as that is not the primary purpose of the group.

The seven signers of the letter are among the more notorious of the Senate Democrats’ rogues gallery, including Sens. Chuck Schumer, Michael Bennet, Sheldon Whitehouse, Jeff Merkley, Tom Udall, Jeanne Shaheen and Al Franken.

As is usual where liberals are involved, the claimed motivation for the witch hunt has more to do with fevered liberal fantasies than reality. “The shadowy attack ads we see every day should be brought into the light,” said Bennet. “The largest contributors should stand by the ads they’ve paid for, the voters should know who’s behind these ads, and these super PACs should not be allowed to abuse our tax code by masquerading as nonprofit charities.”

There may be wealthy Tea Party chapters out there sponsoring political TV and radio ads, but most of the groups I know of would consider photocopied fliers to be a large expense.

Finance Committee ranking member Sen. Orrin Hatch said, “The White House and its congressional allies are talking out of both sides of their mouths by accepting unprecedented sums of big labor and rich liberal money. … Sending the IRS on a politically motivated witch hunt is simply unacceptable and could have a chilling impact on the constitutionally protected right to free speech.”

Tad Cronn is the editor in chief of The Patriots Almanac and the author of the e-book Radical Reboot: How to Fix Capitalism (and Save the World).