DENVER (CBS4) – A group in Colorado says it’s been unfairly targeted by the Internal Revenue Service, and now the U.S. Department of Justice has opened a criminal investigation into allegations the IRS targeted conservative groups.

The agency is blaming low-level employees in Cincinnati for questioning conservative groups as they applied for tax exempt status. Republicans are outraged.

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Republican Rep. Cory Gardner fired off a letter on Tuesday accusing the IRS of “thuggish” behavior and demanding a list of Colorado groups targeted.

Colorado’s Citizen Awareness Project, founded by Charlie Smith, says the IRS admitted it released its confidential records. As an attorney whose areas of expertise include tax law, Smith would seem an unlikely target of an illegal IRS probe, which makes his story all the more compelling.

“This is about trusting government,” Smith said.

Last summer Smith launched the Citizen Awareness Project, a nonprofit advocating conservative policies, and applied for tax exempt status.

“Then in November I got a call from the IRS, from their tax-exempt organization’s division, telling me that, well admitting that an IRS employee had illegally disclosed our application to someone, but they refused to tell me who or when or why,” Smith said.

An online news site now says the IRS gave it the confidential application along with applications from nine other conservative groups.

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Smith also received a questionnaire. The IRS wanted lists of meetings, membership, and even transcripts of media interviews — all under penalties of perjury.

“Certainly someone had to be aware of this higher up, and whether they were directing it from above as, ‘Here is what you do with conservative organizations,’ or they just knew about it and turned a blind eye. I think we need those questions answered,” Smith said.

Gardner is among those calling for an investigation.

“I don’t care if you are a Democrat or Republican, the fact is this was wrong of the IRS,” Gardner said. “The administration needs to take responsibility, find out the answers, and prevent this from ever happening again.”

Smith says it’s the same government agency that will be enforcing Obamacare.

“If we can’t trust them to handle basic information like a 1024 or a tax exemption form, are we sure we want to trust them with our medical records and a complete medical history of our family?” Smith said.

Eight months later Smith says his group is still waiting for their tax exempt status.

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Also, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet is defending a letter he and other Democratic lawmakers wrote the IRS last year urging it to scrutinize political organizations seeking tax exempt status. Bennet says he still thinks that’s important but says it must be done without bias, and that apparently wasn’t always happening.