ORLANDO — If there’s one thing that never seems to change, Doug Guetzloe noted, it appears to be an insatiable appetite on the part of government leaders for tax hikes.
It’s the kind of situation, he said, that requires a loud and vocal grassroots response.
For those who wondered if he was still active in the political scene, Guetzloe said he very much wants to reassure anti-tax crusaders across the state that yes, he’s ready to lead a whole new series of fights on behalf of taxpayers.
“Not only am I back, but I’ve cranked up Ax The Tax again,” he said.
At the same time, Guetzloe is trying to raise awareness of what he believes was as an aggressive effort to silence him through a politically-motivated trial. The reason he was away from the scene in 2013 was a 15-month sentence in federal prison. The case was The United States of America versus Douglas Guetzloe, and in May 2012, a federal judge handed him the sentence on two misdemeanor tax filing charges.
He didn’t realize it at the time, Guetzloe noted, but his case looked awfully familiar to the multiple investigations launched by the Internal Revenue Service against numerous Tea Party groups. And Guetzloe was the founder of not only Ax The Tax, the grassroots group that works against ballot measures aimed at raising taxes, but also the Tea Party of Florida.
Coincidence? Guetzloe doubts that.
“Unbeknownst to any of us at the time, the IRS was targeting anti-tax leaders and Tea Party leaders,” Guetzloe said. “Nothing is coincidental in politics.”
This controversy has been brewing for more than two years. In March 2012, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., expressed concern to the IRS inspector general that Tea Party groups had been unfairly targeted for investigations. Issa would later request that the inspector general audit the IRS, so he could see how employees were processing applications for nonprofit groups.
Congressional hearings started in May 2013, the FBI began a probe, and Lois Lerner, the head of the IRS, went before the House Oversight Committee, declared her innocence, then invoked her Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination. She refused to answer questions from lawmakers, then retired from the IRS in September 2013.
This past May, the House voted to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress. In July, a federal judge ordered the IRS to explain under oath how it lost emails that had been connected to Lerner, while the U.S. Department of Justice also planned an investigation of those lost emails.
Guetzloe said the media circus atmosphere surrounding the IRS case has obscured the fact that he may have been a prime example of a Tea Party, anti-tax crusader who got caught up in the IRS investigations – and paid for it dearly.
As Guetzloe noted, he was tried in U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida. The government had filed the case in the summer of 2011, charging the Orlando resident with two misdemeanor counts of failing to file tax returns in 2005 and 2006.
A 12-member jury found Guetzloe guilty on both misdemeanor counts of willful failure to file tax returns.
But as he pointed out, he was never charged with failing to pay his taxes.
“Some people have the misconception that I evaded taxes,” Guetzloe said. “That’s not the case. This was about me not signing two tax forms. I did not owe the government anything. After the verdict, there was zero payment ordered, and only $50 in court costs. It is, unfortunately, a criminal misdemeanor – and a lot of people don’t know that.”
Guetzloe believes he was unfairly targeted for political reasons.
“There is no doubt in my mind,” he said. “The IRS never identified the source of whatever triggered my investigation. They never explained why they were targeting me.”
A lot of money was spent prosecuting him, Guetzloe pointed out, but few people seem to understand what the charge actually was.
“They did find that I did not sign two tax forms. When I tell people that, they say ‘No, that can’t be,’ “ he said. “This confirms the worst fears of all Americans that the IRS is the Evil Empire.”
Guetzloe believes his prosecution was similar to the investigations launched against other Tea Party and Patriot groups on the right.
“This is a terrible violation of their free speech rights and First Amendment rights,” he said. “They were targeting citizens like myself, and anti-tax crusaders, and tried to shut them down. That’s what they did with me. I think it was because I was outspoken on taxes. And if I can get targeted, anybody can.”
In addition to raising awareness about his prosecution, Guetzloe is now actively involved in Ax The Tax, the grassroots group he formed back in 1982 to put a check on government efforts to raise taxes. He has definitely stayed busy in the past few months.
“We are weighing in on Polk County, which wants to reduce the property tax but increase the sales tax for roads and a light rail system,” he said. “We’re also targeting Greenlight in Pinellas County, which is a sales tax hike to pay for a light rail system. We’re opposing that as well. We’re going to be actively involved in those issues.”
He also has no intention, Guetzloe said, of being silent or quietly fading off into the background.
“I want to get back into political consulting,” he said, “but I also want to work more on helping people. I’d like to get more into helping veterans. That’s a commitment the government has made. That’s a commitment we gave to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.”
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