Complaint alleges Minn. marriage amendment backers broke the law

A government watchdog group filed complaints on Wednesday with Minnesota's campaign finance board alleging that two groups, the Minnesota Family Council and Minnesota for Marriage, violated the state's campaign finance laws when they submitted reports to the state last month. Common Cause Minnesota said the groups "broke campaign laws" when they allegedly failed to disclose donors to an effort to pass a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

In the complaint against Minnesota for Marriage (PDF), Common Cause is asking that criminal gross misdemeanor charges be brought against John Helmberger in his capacity as chair of Minnesota for Marriage. The group accuses Helmberger of filing a false campaign report with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.

The complaint also accuses Minnesota for Marriage of "conspiring to circumvent Minnesota's disclosure laws" by soliciting donations through an unregistered group which then gave the money to Minnesota for Marriage.

"Redirecting contributions to an intermediary organization for the purpose of avoiding disclosure is circumvention prohibited by" state statute, the complaint reads.

That intermediary organization is the Minnesota Family Council, another group targeted by a Common Cause complaint (PDF).

That complaint alleges that the Minnesota Family Council failed to register with the board even though, according to Common Cause, promotion of the anti-gay-marriage amendment is a "major purpose" of the organization.

Common Cause presents as its evidence the fact that the Minnesota Family Council spent almost three times as much money in the seven months after the state legislature approved the marriage amendment for the 2012 ballot than it did in all of 2010.

"MFC's total expenditures in connection with the Marriage Amendment during the last seven months of 2011 ($346,994.05 in loans and contributions to [Minnesota for Marriage]) are approximately 2.75 times the its total expenditures in the 2009-2010 fiscal year ($126,523), and more than 1.5 times its total receipts during that fiscal year," the complaint says. "Surely an organization that spents an amount to influence a ballot question in seven months that nearly triples the total amount spent on all of its activities in the prior year has a 'major purpose' of promoting the ballot measure."

The complaint notes that under Minnesota statute, an organization whose major purpose is to influence people to vote on a ballot question must register with the board and disclose its donors.

"Minnesota law requires disclosure of campaign contributions because the public has a right to know what special interests are paying for political ads," Common Cause's director Mike Dean said in a statement accompanying the complaints. "Our democracy is threatened if people don’t have the political courage to stand behind the political ads that they support. Minnesotans should ask, what are these groups trying to hide by avoiding disclosure?"

In addition to the criminal charges being sought against Helmberger, Common Cause is asking the board to impose $6,000 in fines against Minnesota for Marriage, and a maximum of $2,000 against the Minnesota Family Council if the board finds in favor of Common Cause's complaint.

The American Independent first reported on the possibility of a complaint on Wednesday.

"For months, both groups have attempted to weaken the disclosure laws by sending in teams of national lawyers to create legal loopholes in the rules," Dean said. "This is part of a pattern from these types of groups to willfully violate disclosure laws and then challenge them in court so that their campaign donations are not disclosed during the campaign."

The Minnesota Legislature passed new campaign finance rules in 2010 after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v Federal Elections Commission.

In the summer of 2011, the campaign finance board issued several sets of policies aimed at interpreting those rules especially in light of the anti-gay-marriage amendment which passed the state legislature in May.

In response, the Minnesota Family Council and the National Organization for Marriage brought in attorneys to urge the board to loosen the state's disclosure laws.

MFC brought in the law firm owned by James Bopp, Jr., an attorney who worked on Citizens United's successful Supreme Court case which loosened federal campaign finance limits, and NOM brought in Cleta Mitchell, a tea party-affiliated attorney who specializes in finding campaign finance loopholes.

At a June hearing, the Minnesota Family Council's Tom Prichard told the board that it should not have to disclose any of its donors to the marriage amendment campaign.

“To require groups, non profits like the Minnesota Family Council, to disclose their donors and make their donors names public would have a significant chilling effect on free speech. Even in Minnesota already it’s gotten heated in some respects,” he said. “The concern is harassment, property damage, a chilling effect. If I know I have to disclose my name, I’m not going to get involved with the Minnesota Family Council.”

Prichard said he had knowledge of violence against donors to the Prop 8 campaign in California.

“They went after their employment, by challenging their employers. There was vandalism on certain organizations. I can think of one individual that his business suffered because he had to disclose.”

“I don’t think our organization should have to disclose our donors, period. We just don’t believe we should be forced to.”

The board decided in favor of increased disclosure and Minnesota for Marriage called that decision "illegal."

"What [campaign finance board] bureaucrats are attempting to do goes well beyond what the law requires, substituting themselves for the Legislature in an illegal attempt to compel disclosure of information not required by law. We oppose such illegal regulations,” Helmberger said in a statement in October.

The Common Cause complaint noted that groups who support the marriage amendment had previously said they didn't agree with the board's decisions, but “disagreement is no excuse for noncompliance.”

Minnesota for Marriage's opponents, the Human Rights Campaign, immediately praised the campaign finance complaints.

“No individual or organization is above the law,” HRC's president Joe Solmonese said in a statement. “But Minnesota has become the Wild, Wild West where anti-gay groups think they can get away with thumbing their nose at state laws governing financial disclosure. The arrogance boggles the mind but fits the national trend established by the National Organization for Marriage of picking and choosing which laws it likes and which it doesn’t.”

The Minnesota Family Council and Minnesota for Marriage did not respond to a request for comment on the complaints.

Photo: New Yorkers celebrate the law legalizing gay marriage in June 2011 (source: Flickr/Zach Roberts).