The IRS's internal watchdog is reviewing allegations that the agency improperly audited a Tea Party owner of a small Virginia farm whose repeated clashes with a local environmental group and the county over zoning laws have made her a cause celebre for property-rights advocates.
Martha Boneta, who runs a 64-acre organic farm in Fauquier County's tight-knit historic hunt country, has spent the last few years tangling with the Piedmont Environmental Council over the group's access to her property, which she bought in 2006. The PEC wants regular access to the land to monitor adherence to a conservation easement intended to limit commercial activities and safeguard the historic and scenic value of the land.
Boneta, who considers herself a Tea Party Republican and held a fundraiser on her farm for former conservative U.S. Senate hopeful Jamie Radtke in early 2012, also has locked horns with Fauquier County officials in recent years. The county has levied thousands of dollars in fines against her for selling fruits and vegetables on the property during the weekend without a proper license even though she held a county-approved license for a "retail farm shop" and for holding unlicensed events, including a birthday party for her best friend's child and a pumpkin carving, without a permit and a site plan.
She has fought back, accusing county officials of colluding with the PEC to target her, which both the PEC and county officials say has no merit. Both sides have dug in, battling over a stream of accusations and land-rights claims in court over the last few years.
Boneta gained the support of other farmers in the county, and last August several joined her at a hearing at the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors' offices and staged a "pitchfork protest" in which they held signs and and farming tools in a show of support.
Last year, her case attracted the attention of GOP Del. Scott Lingamfelter, who wrote the Right to Farm Act, also known as the "Boneta bill," designed to strengthen the ability of local farmers to sell certain food products from their homes without inspection by the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The measure passed the House of Delegates in February but stalled in the divided Senate.
Amid the publicity, Boneta last year also received notice of an IRS audit - an audit she believes is directly related to her disagreements with the environmental group and the county and is intended to frighten her into backing down.
"The audit had the effect of really scaring me," she told the Washington Examiner. "If that was the intention, it worked. I was terrified. The auditor asked me questions that were uniquely related to my litigation with Fauquier County and the Piedmont Environmental Council. If not collusion, how could this be possible?"
A spokesman for the PEC said the group has nothing to do with the zoning issues she was having nor the audit.
"Our issues and concerns relate solely to our conservation easement," said the PEC's Heather Richards.
Peter Schwartz, a Fauquier County supervisor who served on the PEC's board seven years ago, said he has never had any contact with the IRS or the Treasury Department with respect to Boneta or her farm, and has "no knowledge of the status of the matter."
"Other than that, I have no further comment on your inquiry," he said in an emailed response to questions.
While Boneta's conflicts with the PEC took place some 60 miles from Washington in rural Virginia, her allegations are attracting attention from conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation, which has taken an interest in her case in the wake of the larger national story involving IRS targeting of Tea Party and other right-leaning groups for special scrutiny.
Boneta's story also caught the attention of the Treasury Department's inspector general for tax administration, or TIGTA. About a month ago, an inspector for the Treasury watchdog contacted Boneta and twice interviewed her about her case for more than three hours each time, she told the Examiner.
A spokesman for the IRS declined to confirm the inspector general's review of Boneta's case, citing federal laws barring the disclosure of confidential taxpayer information. A public affairs officer at the Treasury Department's inspector general for tax administration said he "could not provide any information to you at this time."
The Treasury inspector general's interest in Boneta's case comes amid new revelations that TIGTA is investigating two allegations that government officials singled out candidates for public office for a potential audit, as well an admission by Delaware state officials that they accessed former GOP Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell's personal tax records in 2010. The TIGTA is investigating the matter and has interviewed O'Donnell about the privacy breach.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican and the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, recently disclosed that government officials violated the privacy of at least four political candidates or campaign donors by illegally accessing or disclosing their confidential tax records. In only one case, however, did the inspector general find the privacy violation was "willful."