Complaint looms against Minn. anti-gay-marriage amendment funders

Several groups that are raising money to support a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota are facing scrutiny and a possible campaign finance complaint over reports released last month that showed $1.2 million was raised to promote the amendment yet only seven individual donors were disclosed.

At least one government watchdog group says it intends to file a campaign finance complaint against the Minnesota Family Council and Minnesota for Marriage because the groups allegedly failed to report donors to the ballot campaign. And other groups have vowed to urge Minnesota officials to launch an investigation.

In late-January, groups in support of and opposed to the anti-gay-marriage amendment were required to file reports of the contributions they received and money spent in 2011 on the ballot measure. Those disclosure forms show that Minnesota for Marriage and its allies raised $1.2 million to pass the marriage amendment but only disclosed seven individual donors. Minnesota for Marriage also received large sums of money from several organizations that make up its coalition: Minnesota Family Council, National Organization for Marriage, and the Minnesota Catholic Conference. Those three groups disclosed zero donors related to the amendment.

In contrast, Minnesotans United for All Families, the coalition opposed to the amendment, disclosed close to 750 donors while raising roughly the same amount.

Common Cause Minnesota, an organization that advocates open and accountable government, acknowledged to The American Independent that it was putting together a complaint against the Minnesota Family Council and its political fund, the Minnesota Family Council Marriage Protection Fund, as well as Minnesota for Marriage for "failing to abide by Minnesota's disclosure laws." Its director, Mike Dean, did not discuss specifics but said the complaint would be filed by the end of the week.

At issue are emails that solicited donations for the marriage amendment and the funds that passed from MFC to Minnesota for Marriage.

The Minnesota Family Council is a 501(c)4 nonprofit and has been the prime mover behind the amendment in Minnesota since 2003. In order to spend and raise money to pass the amendment, it created a political fund, the Minnesota Family Council Marriage Protection Fund. Such funds are a common way for nonprofits in Minnesota to track contributions and spending and report them to the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. The board doesn't require such funds to be set up, only that organizations that spend more than $5,000 to promote or defeat a ballot question register with the board.

Minnesota for Marriage, a coalition consisting of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), the Minnesota Catholic Conference, and the Minnesota Family Council, is also registered with the board.

MFC's fund raised $346,994.05 and then gave Minnesota for Marriage $226,000.

Minnesota for Marriage also reported that it had raised money from only seven individual donors. About $2,100 came from those seven donors and another $1986.50 came from un-itemized donations of under $100, which do not require disclosure under state law.

The anomalous reporting raised the ire of opponents who are alleging possible violations.

"Anti-gay groups are either breaking Minnesota law or they have run one of the least successful general fundraising campaigns in history," Kevin Nix of the Human Rights Campaign wrote in special report the group put out on the campaign finance issues in Minnesota. "For eight months, Minnesota for Marriage has regularly solicited contributions for the ballot measure through its website as well as multiple e-mails that have been obtained by the Human Rights Campaign, with barely $4,000 in total contributions to show for it."

Emails (PDF) sent out by the Minnesota Family Council asked supporters to donate money to Minnesota for Marriage. They were sent out several times a month between May and the end of 2011.

One such email read, "This is the time of year when many people make year-end gifts to their favorite organizations – like Minnesota For Marriage. Please don’t forget to make a generous year-end donation to help us pass the Marriage Protection Amendment in 2012. We can’t do it without your financial support. You can make a secure online contribution" by clicking on a link to Minnesota for Marriage.

While the emails asked for money for Minnesota for Marriage, they were paid for and sent out by the Minnesota Family Council. The footer on the emails read, "Prepared and paid for by the Minnesota Family Council Marriage Protection Fund, 2855 Anthony Lane S, Suite 150, Minneapolis, MN 55418, in support of the Minnesota Marriage Amendment."

The two groups, Minnesota for Marriage and Minnesota Family Council, are very close. MFC's CEO, John Helmberger is also the chair of Minnesota for Marriage, and the two groups share a communications director, Chuck Darrell.

HRC's Nix asserted that any donations that were received from those emails should have been disclosed.

"The Minnesota requirements are straightforward," Nix continued. "[M]oney given in response to solicitations that include a request to support a ballot measure campaign... must be disclosed. If the donor contributes more than $100 to the effort, the name and address of the donor along with his or her employer must be listed on the next campaign finance filing."

Minnesota for Marriage did not respond to a request for comment about the pending complaint.

Did these groups abide by the state's policies? According to Prof. David Schultz, a professor at Hamline University and an expert in campaign finance laws, that decision will be up to the campaign finance board.

Schultz said that Minnesota disclosure rules are fairly lax, but without seeing a complaint, he wasn't willing to offer specifics.

"I think our disclosure laws are horrible. We have a failing grade across the board," he said.

"The disclosure board's decisions and guidance lately have not been overwhelmingly in favor of transparency," Schultz added.

In addition to Minnesota for Marriage and the Minnesota Family Council, the Human Rights Campaign has also called for an investigation into the National Organization for Marriage.

That group raised $280,000 in Minnesota in 2011 but disclosed zero donors.

Campaign finance experts told the American Independent earlier this month that Minnesota's lax disclosure laws may have made it easy for NOM to legally hide all of its Minnesota donors from public view.