BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – HONOLULU — Former Hawaii Republican Party Executive Director Dylan Nonaka has a notable, but certainly not relished, distinction.
Nokaka, a 31-year-old former U.S. Marine and current U.S. Army reservist, believes he is one of the few individuals in the country to be named by the Internal Revenue Service in its probe of local tea parties.
When Mitch Steele, a tax-exempt organizations specialist for the IRS, sent more than one dozen pages of questions and additional forms to the Maui Tea Party on January 26, 2012, in response to an application for 501(c)(4) status, the sixth question was about Nonaka.
“Provide details regarding your relationship with Dylan Nonaka. Provide copies of the training material used by Dylan Nonaka,” the IRS letter demanded.
Similar questions about the Maui Tea Party’s relationship with the Virginia-based Leadership Institute proceeded questions about Nonaka.
Nonaka has no tie to the Maui Tea Party, but flew to the island for a seminar where he volunteered at a grassroots activist training run by a friend at the Leadership Institute. The Maui Tea Party mentioned the event in one of its newsletters, but was not involved in the meeting.
Nonaka was the executive director of the Hawaii Republican Party from 2010 to 2011 and has helped co-chair other political campaigns, including Charles Djou’s successful bid for Congress in 2010. Before that, he joined the Marines out of high school and traveled with his unit to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Nonaka’s unit was among the first American forces to cross the Kuwait/Iraq border and enter Baghdad later in the campaign.
“The worst thing our government can do is use its taxing authority to go after individuals that they don’t agree with politically,” Nonaka said.
The IRS demands placed on the Maui Tea Party were extensive, even though the organization that collects less than $10,000 from its members to cover the cost of monthly meetings and events.
The IRS included questions about volunteer activities by tea party members and their family members outside of the tea party, their associations with other non-profits, any political events or lobbying efforts they participated in, and transcripts and videos of any presentations by candidates who spoke to the group.
Realizing they were dealing with a powerful agency that seemed determined to make the application process personal and political, Maui Tea Party leaders retained the services of The American Center for Law and Justice. The organization filed a federal lawsuit last Wednesday in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the Honolulu Tea Party, Maui Tea Party and nearly two dozen other conservative groups across the country.
The 29-page lawsuit names the U.S. attorney general, Treasury secretary and the IRS and its top officials as defendants. The lawsuit comes after a May 10 admission and apology from Lois Lerner, head of the IRS unit overseeing tax-exempt groups, that tea party groups were wrongfully targeted.
Nonaka, who may be called as a witness in the case, said when he first heard his name mentioned in the IRS inquiry, he “did not think too much about it” other than to note looking into him personally “was a huge invasion of privacy” and that the IRS “would have really dug through the Maui Tea Party website to find a mention of the Leadership Institute event.”
“There seems to be no motive other than to hurt folks they do not agree with politically,” Nonaka said. “It is scary that the government has got to that point.”
The IRS’ actions send a threatening message to people who may be considering getting involved with politics or government in their community, Nonaka added.
“This will have a much bigger effect by intimidating people and will put a huge damper on political activity in general. This is sure to be a major disincentive to get involved in politics,” Nonaka said.
Jim Wagoner, a retired Maui businessman, former Maui Chamber of Commerce president and acting president of the Maui Tea Party, said he’d never seen anything like the IRS inquiry.
“Our president was so disgusted that he went to the local IRS office, but unfortunately he could not get any straight answers. They put him on the line with the IRS representative in Cincinnati, but our president could not get anything concrete. There were just so many silly questions,” Wagoner said.
The ACLJ took the case pro-bono.
Jay Sekulow, that group’s chief counsel, maintains the “unconstitutional scheme” continues, and said legal action is the only way to stop the abuse.
“The lawsuit sends a very powerful message to the IRS and the Obama administration – including the White House: Americans are not going to be bullied and intimidated by our government,” Sekulow said. “They will not be subjected to unconstitutional treatment and unlawfully singled out and punished because of their ideological beliefs. Those responsible for this unprecedented intimidation ploy must be held accountable.”
Reach Malia Zimmerman at Malia@hawaiireporter.com