Catherine Engelbrecht’s tale has all the markings of a classic conspiracy theory: She says she thinks that because of her peaceful political activity, she and her family were targeted for scrutiny by hostile federal agencies.
Yet as news emerges that the Internal Revenue Service wielded its power to obstruct conservative groups, Catherine’s story becomes credible — and chilling. It also raises questions about whether other federal agencies have used their executive powers to target those deemed political enemies.
Before the Engelbrecht family’s three-year ordeal began, Catherine says, “I had no real expectation or preparation for the blood sport that American politics is.” Sounding weary on the phone, she continues: “It’s all been a through-the-looking-glass experience.”
Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who specializes in representing conservative organizations, says that the Engelbrecht family’s experience is “just the tip of the iceberg. . . . I think there’s definitely a Chicago-politics-style enemies list in this administration, and I think it permeates this branch of the federal government.”
* * *
The Engelbrechts were not, until recently, particularly political. They had been busy running a tiny manufacturing plant in Rosenberg, Texas. After years of working for others, Bryan, a trained machinist, wanted to open his own shop, so he saved his earnings, bought a computerized numerical-control machine, which does precision metal-cutting, and began operating out of his garage. “That was about 20 years ago,” he says. “Now, we’re up to about 30 employees.”
For two decades, Bryan and Catherine drove to work in their big truck. Engelbrecht Manufacturing Inc. now operates out of a 20,000-square-foot metal building on the prairie just outside of Houston, where a “semi-pet coyote lives in the field just behind us,” Bryan says. They went back to their country home each night. Stress was rare, and life was good.
But the 2008 elections left Catherine feeling frustrated about the debates, which seemed to be a string of superficial talking points. So she began attending tea-party meetings, enjoying the political discussion. A spunky woman known for her drive, Catherine soon wanted to do more than just talk. She joined other tea partiers and decided to volunteer at the ballot box. Working as an alternate judge at the polls in 2009 in Fort Bend County, Texas, Catherine says, she was appalled and dismayed to witness everything from administrative snafus to outright voter fraud.
These formative experiences prompted her to found two organizations: King Street Patriots, a local community group that hosts weekly discussions on personal and economic freedoms; and True the Vote, which seeks to prevent voter fraud and trains volunteers to work as election monitors. It also registers voters, attempts to validate voter-registration lists, and pursues fraud reports to push for prosecution if illegal activity has occurred.
Bryan says that when his wife began focusing on politics, working less often at the manufacturing shop, “I told her, ‘You have my undying support.’” He pauses, then adds in his thick Texan drawl: “Little did I know she’d take it this far!”
In July 2010, Catherine filed with the IRS seeking tax-exempt status for her organizations. Shortly after, the troubles began.
That winter, the Federal Bureau of Investigation came knocking with questions about a person who had attended a King Street Patriots event once. Based on sign-in sheets, the organization discovered that the individual in question had attended an event, but “it was a come-and-go thing,” and they had no further information on hand about him. Nevertheless, the FBI also made inquiries about the person to the office manager, who was a volunteer.
The King Street Patriots weren’t the only ones under scrutiny. On January 11, the IRS visited the Engelbrechts’ shop and conducted an on-site audit of both their business and their personal returns, Catherine says.