Minn. board opens investigation into marriage amendment supporters

The Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board announced last week that it was launching an investigation into the campaign finance reporting of Minnesota for Marriage and the Minnesota Family Council. The two groups are working to pass a constitutional amendment in that state that would ban same-sex marriage.

Common Cause Minnesota, a government transparency group, filed a pair of complaints against the groups last month alleging that the two groups failed to disclose donors to their ballot initiative campaigns.

"This investigation is critical to protecting the public’s right to know how political campaigns are being funded," Common Cause said in a statement on Friday. "The Board has an opportunity expose the pattern of deceit designed to hide what interests are behind the amendment campaign. It is time that these groups are held accountable for being dishonest with Minnesotans. Their desire to operate in the shadows is a clear attack on the fundamental principles of our democracy."

The board made it clear in letters to Common Cause that the complaints it filed "met the minimal threshold" to allow an investigation to launch.

Under state statute, "the Board is required to investigate complaints filed with it," the board wrote. "Although Minnesota provides very limited exceptions to the requirement for an investigation, the board did not find any of these exceptions applicable. Thus, the Board will conduct an investigation regarding the allegations raised in the complaint."

It stated that the announcement to launch an investigation is not an indication of how the board will eventually rule on the matters before it.

Common Cause has alleged that Minnesota for Marriage filed false campaign finance reports and that the group used an intermediary organization, the Minnesota Family Council, to circumvent Minnesota's disclosure laws.

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

The complaint is also asking for criminal gross misdemeanor charges be filed against Minnesota for Marriage's John Helmberger alleging that he knowingly filed a false report to the campaign finance board.

According to campaign finance reports, Minnesota for Marriage and its allies raised $1.2 million in 2011 to pass the amendment but only disclosed seven individual donors.

Minnesota for Marriage and the Minnesota Family Council did not return The American Independent's request for comment on the complaints, but in an email to supporters last week, the Minnesota Family Council lashed out at Common Cause.

"I didn’t expect it to happen this early. The left-wing activists want me sent to jail," wrote John Helmberger who serves as the Minnesota Family Council's CEO and is also the chair of Minnesota for Marriage.

"A group called 'Minnesota Common Cause' has filed a 108 page legal complaint against me as Chairman of Minnesota for Marriage, accusing me of committing perjury and circumventing state campaign finance law," he said. "They really don’t understand truth and righteousness, do they? There is no honor in going to jail when you have done wrong. But there is great honor in suffering for doing what's right, even if it means sitting behind bars!"

Helmberger said that even though his group believes that the campaign finance laws are a violation of the U.S. Constitution, his group followed those laws.

He also asked supporters for money to help fight the complaint.

"Take heart, friends. God is with us and with your help he will defend our cause," he wrote.

Common Cause responded, "Contrary to the statements made by Minnesota for Marriage, the [campaign finance board] investigation is a clear indication that there are serious questions about whether they followed political spending rules. In fact, Mr. Helmberger has expressed concern to supporters that he might be sent to jail for committing perjury and circumventing state campaign finance laws."

The Human Rights Campaign, which had publicly called for an investigation of the National Organization for Marriage, a member group of Minnesota for Marriage, praised the announcement of a pending investigation.

“The election board is doing exactly what it’s set up to do by launching this investigation,” HRC President Joe Solmonese said in a statement. “We urge the Board to rebuff any political pressure to water down this investigation. Minnesota voters deserve a fair and thorough vetting of this case. The nation is watching.”

NOM raised money in Minnesota in 2011 and disclosed zero donors. Though no complaint has been lodged against the group, HRC continued to criticize it.

"NOM and its allies have deliberately evaded Minnesota's public disclosure laws," added Solmonese. "It's time they be held to account for repeatedly playing fast and loose with campaign finance laws."

NOM has fought campaign finance laws in states around the country -- including Minnesota -- complaining that disclosure of donors in highly charged campaigns over same-sex marriage could lead to their donors being targeted by supporters of marriage equality.