December 5, 2011; Richmond Times Dispatch | On occasion, we spot incidents where the Tea Party, typically prone to eschewing the niceties of corporate and nonprofit registrations and filings, gets its comeuppance. In Richmond, Virginia, the local Tea Party has been protesting the city’s decision to call for a tax audit on the group via tax-day rallies in Richmond’s Kanawha Plaza. While their right to assembly and free speech is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the Tea Party also used staging and amplification for the rallies and sold food and beverages, and that requires a business license under municipal ordinances. The tax day rallies were held in 2010 and 2011, according to the Times-Dispatch. Richmond Tea Party leaders said that they had pulled a special-events permit for the rallies to sell T-shirts, but not to sell food. The city said that, on the contrary, the Tea Party’s special events application indicated that they would be selling food at the rallies, requiring the city to collect meals taxes. Although the organization has been around for a few years now, the Richmond Tea Party seems to have missed some of the basics of nonprofit organization. A spokesperson said that the Richmond Tea Party is incorporated as a “non-stock company,” has a post office box address in Richmond, and a registered agent in Henrico County, but has yet to receive the 501(c)(4) status it says it is seeking.
There are a couple of problems with the Richmond Tea Party complaint. First, it seems to have understood something about business permits, having applied for one in 2009 for a rally that it held in nearby Chesterfield County. Second, federally approved tax exempt organizations are exempt from business permit requirements in Chesterfield County, which might have been a good tip for the group to think about nonprofit tax status to alleviate it of some costs and permit requirements in Richmond (Henrico). Third, maybe the Tea Party pushed a little too far. Apparently, the city provided trash services and portable toilets for the Occupy Richmond protesters at the same location, so the Richmond Tea Party sent the city a bill asking to be reimbursed $8,544.82 for costs incurred by the rallies. Whoops. If you send the city a bill, and from your corporate post office box, to boot, you might get back an inquiry about whether you followed all the necessary p’s and q’s.
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The Richmond Tea Party might want to explore how to speed up its (c)(4) application or get in line for a 501(c)(3)—unless perhaps the Tea Partiers want to join the Occupiers and simply camp out.—Rick Cohen