The leader of the central group opposing same-sex marriage in Minnesota appears to have skirted state law by directing contributions to a separate group that is not required to disclose its donors.
Minnesota for Marriage Chairman John Helmberger sent a series of emails soliciting contributions not to its own political action committee – which must disclose its donors – but to a non-profit group that backs it, and which he also heads, the Minnesota Family Council. The maneuver, described in campaign finance circles as a “Russian doll” arrangement, appears to run afoul of Minnesota’s unusually tight campaign finance laws, a top state official suggested in an interview.
Minnesota is one of a series of fronts in the national trench war over same-sex marriage, with a referendum on the issue on the ballot this fall. It’s also the latest in that has come to revolve in many cases around the disclosure of donors. Groups who oppose gay marriage have fought to conceal supporters’ names, on the grounds they could be harassed, which gay rights activists charge simply reflects the unpopularity of the conservative position.
In an interview, a spokesman for Human Rights Campaign, the leading national gay rights group, accused the National Organization for Marriage and its leading allies – the Catholic Church and the Minnesota Family Council -- of violating Minnesota campaign finance law.
“What NOM and its allies are doing in Minnesota is shockingly bold – even for them, the group nationally known for thumbing its nose at campaign finance laws,” said Human Rights Campaign’s Kevin Nix.
Spokespeople for the anti-marriage groups in Minnesota and Washington didn’t respond to inquiries about their campaign finance practices; the National Organization for Marriage has in the past vigorously defending its disclosure practices.
At the core of the dispute is the campaign finance disclosure report for Minnesota for Marriage, the main political action committee supporting the Minnesota proposal, which consists of just two pages of handwritten notes. The Minnesota Catholic Conference, the conservative Minnesota Family Council, and NOM comprise the vast majority of donations, to the tune of $1.2 million; the report also lists seven itemized donors, and no unitemized small donors. Organizations like the Minnesota Family Council and the National Organization for Marriage are not required to disclose their own donors in this case.
The report isn’t suspicious in and of itself, although civil rights-related ballot measure disclosure reports often include a long list of smaller donors. But the email solicitations obtained by BuzzFeed suggest that Minnesota for Marriage has been soliciting individual donations through at least one other organizations in what could constitute a violation of Minnesota campaign finance law.
The Minnesota For Marriage chairman, Helmberger -- who is also the CEO of the Minnesota Family Council -- sent out a series of emails starting in October to members of the MFC listserv that specifically ask for donations for the marriage effort. A typical example leads with the subject line “Tomorrow Is The Last Day To Double Your Year End Gift To Minnesota Family Council/Institute.”
The email explicitly asks donors for contributions for the marriage fight: "As you may know, MFC has been working fervently to put a Marriage Protection Amendment on the ballot since 2004."
"CLICK HERE to make a secure online gift,” it reads. The link goes to the Minnesota Family Council website. The Council, unlike Minnesota for Marriage, is not required to disclose its donors.
Other emails, though still sent out under the banner of the Minnesota Family Council (many lead with: "The following message is from MFC's John Helmberger, who is also Chairman of Minnesota For Marriage, the coalition to pass the Minnesota Marriage Protection Amendment), direct donations towards Minnesota for Marriage. One example, sent out to the MFC listserv on October 21, notes that it's "Prepared and paid for by the Minnesota Family Council Marriage Protection Fund" -- but also encourages potential donors to "Check out our website at
www.MinnesotaForMarriage.com" and directs them to the Minnesota for Marriage website to make donations.
Minnesota campaign finance law appears to forbid just this kind of indirect fundraising. Disclosures that must be reported include money “given in response to a solicitation,” like the one above. According to the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board:
“Money given in response to a solicitation that requests money for the express purpose of supporting the association's campaign to promote or defeat the ballot question is a contribution. An express request is a request that asks for money and states that the money is sought to
support the ballot question campaign.”
Minnesota campaign finance board chairman Gary Goldsmith told BuzzFeed that “If they specifically solicited money for the ballot measure and didn’t disclose that, it would be against the rules.”
No one at Minnesota for Marriage or the Minnesota Family Council responded to requests for comment; neither did the president of the National Organization for Marriage.
The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which made a $650,000 contribution to the Minnesota Catholic Conference in support of the marriage amendment, pre-emptively denies any donor solicitation on its website: "The source of these funds was investment income; it did not
come from parish assessments, the Catholic Service Appeal, or donations to parishes or to the Archdiocese."
Jessica Zitlow, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Catholic Conference, told BuzzFeed that "we complied with all of the guidance for ballot question disclosure provided by the Campaign Finance Board."
The National Organization for Marriage has mounted similar fights against gay marriage legislation in states like Maine, where a court rebuffed their challenge over a law requiring groups like them to release the names of individual donors giving over $100.
The group fought Maine over the law requiring donor disclosures after a referendum overturning Maine’s same sex marriage law passed in 2009. NOM believes that its donors should be protected from disclosure for fear of harassment.
NOM’s lawyer James Bopp, Jr. – a leading figure in the fight against any legal disclosure requirements or spending limits -- told Reuters last week that “The homosexual lobby has launched a nationwide campaign to harass supporters of traditional marriage. When they
disclose who they are they can reasonably expect to be harassed." Bopp did not return BuzzFeed's request for comment.
The harassment issue that NOM says is at the heart of its reluctance to reveal individual donors has implications on a national level, as three current and former presidential candidates – Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Mitt Romney – have all signed a NOM pledge that includes a provision to “Appoint a presidential commission to investigate harassment of traditional marriage supporters.”
NOM has litigated the harassment argument in seven states without success, and an attempt to protect the signers of a petition opposing same-sex marriage in Washington state drew an 8-1 rejection from the Supreme Court and a stinging rebuttal from conservative icon Justice
Antonin Scalia: " For my part, I do not look forward to a society which, thanks to the Supreme Court, campaigns anonymously," Scalia wrote. "This does not resemble the Home of the
For gay rights activists, NOM’s argument that its supporters are harassed for supporting anti-gay marriage proposals is just cover for the real issue: it’s no longer politically expedient to be too anti-gay.
“NOM fights tooth and nail to keep its donors secret because being rabidly anti-gay in this day and age is not popular,” said Nix. “A shroud of secrecy allows [donors] to more freely fund anti-gay initiatives without fingerprints.”
Like NOM, the Human Rights Campaign is not required to disclose its donors if it is itself a donor to a committee campaigning for a ballot measure. In Minnesota, the group gave $185,000 to Minnesotans United For All Families, the PAC funding the campaign against the ballot measure. HRC does disclose individual donations for its PAC in Minnesota, the Human Rights Campaign Family Freedom Minnesota PAC.
“It’s perfectly legal for these groups to be raising and spending what they want for these ballot measures,” said FEC program director and associate legal counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, Paul Ryan. “The question is the type of donor.”
Human Rights Campaign, Nix said, will call on the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board to investigate the National Organization for Marriage. The board, Goldsmith said, doesn’t comment on possible investigations.