Officials with the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force initially told people who asked about a mailer sent to Maryland Democrats this past week that it was funded by an anonymous donation provided to its Action Fund political lobbying arm, BuzzFeed has learned.
The mailer, which threw the group headlong into a complicated battle over expanding gambling in the state, has raised eyebrows in the LGBT advocacy community, and the Task Force has refused to explain its origins.
The group that sent the mailer, started this past week by the Task Force, is an independent expenditure committee, allowing the mailer to have been funded through a single contribution to the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force's Action Fund, which then could have been funneled to the independent expenditure committee for the purpose of sending the mailing to Maryland Democrats. Depending on how many mailers actually were sent — there are more than 1.8 million registered Democrats in Maryland — the mailing could have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The Task Force has refused to name the source of the significant amount of money required to produce the mailing, and would not respond to questions raised about whether the money came from an anonymous source outside of the organization, instead only providing a response from its acting executive director, Darlene Nipper, that the effort was "funded by the Task Force Action Fund."
Noting in a statement that the Task Force has "been involved in the efforts to secure marriage equality in Maryland," Task Force deputy executive director Darlene Nipper echoed an earlier response provided by the organization's communications director, saying, "This mailer, which was funded by the Task Force Action Fund, is part of the effort to get marriage equality over the finish line in Maryland by advocating that an uncluttered ballot provides for the best chance for securing marriage equality this November."
The mailer, which stated it came from the "National Gay & Lesbian Task Force Action Fund Maryland Political Action Committee" and landed in Maryland Democrats' mailboxes on August 8, stated, "[W]e encourage anyone who supports Marriage Equality to contact their legislators and ask them to say 'no' to gaming." The existing gambling operations in Maryland have been among the most strongly opposed to the vote on the expansion, which is being considered by a special session of the Maryland General Assembly that began on August 9.
Although BuzzFeed has learned that Task Force officials told individuals on August 8 that the funding for the mailer came from an anonymous donation, BuzzFeed was told on August 9 only that the "National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Action Fund Maryland Political Action Committee" funded the mailer. A Maryland political action committee is required to reveal its donors and individual donors are limited to $4,000 donations, according to the state's campaign finance head. In its initial responses to BuzzFeed on August 9, the Task Force's communications director did not correct BuzzFeed's understanding based on the language used on the mailer that the Action Fund had started a political action committee in Maryland.
On August 10, however, BuzzFeed reported that the effort actually was registered as an independent expenditure committee — which has significantly less burdensome disclosure requirements.
The Task Force's communications director, Inga Sarda-Sorensen, then told BuzzFeed on August 11 that the mailer "was funded by the Task Force Action Fund" and was "part of the effort to get marriage equality over the finish line in Maryland by advocating that an uncluttered ballot provides for the best chance for securing marriage equality this November."
She added, "The Task Force Action Fund registered an independent expenditure committee, and as such is required to file campaign disclosure reports and disclose its Maryland activity in accordance with Maryland law."
Today, when asked again by BuzzFeed about the funding source of the mailer, including the claim that Task Force officials earlier told individuals that an anonymous donor had provided the funding for the mailer, Nipper reiterated the points made by Sarda-Sorensen, saying in a statement, "The Task Force Action Fund registered an independent expenditure committee — sometimes referred to as an independent-expenditure-only political action committee — and as such is required to file campaign disclosure reports and disclose its Maryland activity in accordance with Maryland law. We will continue to support the work to secure marriage equality in Maryland."
The Task Force's executive director, Rea Carey, is on sabbatical until the end of August and has been since July 1.
Under Maryland law, the Task Force Action Fund's independent expenditure committee will need to report its expenditures — but not until October, long after the special session of Maryland's legislature that the mailer is attempting to influence will have completed its work. Sarda-Sorensen stated on August 9 that the mailer was sent to "Maryland Democrats," but she did not respond when asked this afternoon how much the independent expenditure committee spent on the mailer. BuzzFeed then asked for that information in writing, as requested, but has not received a response.
BuzzFeed has contacted Nipper repeatedly, leaving voice mails asking to speak with her about the mailer, and has asked the Task Force's communications director to allow BuzzFeed to speak directly with Nipper, but Nipper has not yet responded to the requests.
BuzzFeed also has attempted to reach the seven board members of Action Fund, sending email messages to board members Marsha Botzer of Botzer Consulting and Hans Johnson of Progressive Victory; leaving two direct voice mail messages with board member Monique Hall of DCI Group; and speaking with the assistants or board contacts for board president Mark Sexton of Revlon and board members Alan Bernstein of Harper Management and Brad Carlson of CIC Group (for whom a message was left with another organization on whose board he serves). A message was left at a phone number listed for Eric von Kuersteiner's business, Pines Commercial Properties, but it was not clear that the number was still active for the business. None of the messages have been returned.
Questions about outside influence on LGBT organizations and other advocacy groups are not new. In 2011, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation faced questions about the influence a board member with ties to AT&T and the board member's donations had upon organizational activity only tangentially related to its mission — questions that ended with the resignation of GLAAD's executive director. At that time, Carey acknowledged the same company's influence upon the Task Force, telling Metro Weekly that two different letters were sent by the Task Force to the Federal Communications Commission at the request of AT&T. Carey said at the time that sending the letter was a "mistake," noting, "[W]e corrected it right away."