Minnesota for Marriage, the†coalition†group supporting a constitutional amendment to codify a ban on same-sex marriage in the state, is now facing the media spotlight after it emerged that the group’s leader may have solicited for funds through another group and by not disclosing those donations violated Minnesota’s stringent campaign finance rules.
The core of the issue centers around Minnesota for Marriage Chairman John Helmberger allegedly having sent in†October of last year a number of emails under the banner of the†Minnesota Family Council, a group he also heads, soliciting contributions specifically for the amendment campaign. Minnesota for Marriage, as a group financing a public referendum campaign, must disclose its donors, but the Minnesota Family Council is not required to do so. †These donations, it appears, were never disclosed. This would seem to transgress Minnesota’s campaign finance rules.
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 associationís 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 didnít disclose that, it would be against the rules.”
The specific groups involved, Minnesota for Marriage and the Minnesota Family Council (MFC), have so far made no comment.
This isn’t the first time donor shielding with regards to the 2012 ballot campaign has been an issue in Minnesota though. Indeed, the MFC and the anti-gay rights group the National Organization for Marriage (NOM)†argued before the†Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board when it was deciding on the 2012 disclosure rules, that groups supporting the gay marriage amendment should be able to shield donors from disclosure laws otherwise advocates of same-sex marriage might violently†harass†them. The board, citing the importance of transparency, rejected this notion.
Indeed, with public disclosure forms being released this week, some eyebrows were raised that the National Organization for Marriage appeared to have raised $280,000 for Minnesota for Marriage but from zero donors.
According to campaign finance reports filed on Wednesday, NOM gave $250,000 to the group Minnesota for Marriage (MFM), the coalition of groups promoting the amendment. NOM, which is a member of Minnesota for Marriage, claimed its contributions came from membership dues and listed zero donors.
The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation’s largest gay rights advocate, accused NOM of skirting Minnesota’s public disclosure laws.
“NOM has deliberately evaded Minnesota’s public disclosure laws,” HRC President Joe Solmonese said in a statement. “We’ve seen this movie before in plenty of other states. This is part of NOM’s systematic attempt across the country to oppose public disclosure and hide its donors. In Minnesota, they have taken it to a whole new level. We believe that NOM and others may be secretly telling people to contribute to them instead of directly to the campaign so that they can avoid public disclosure. The contrast between seven individuals opposing marriage equality and thousands of pro-equality supporters is quite revealing.”
As suggested above NOM has continually sort to hide donors from disclosure laws, again typically claiming that those donors would otherwise be open to intimidation and that the demand for disclosure stymies free speech.
This has found little grace with the courts however, with a federal appeals court recently denying NOM the right to shield donors who contributed to the 2009 anti-gay marriage effort in Maine. The group has made such attempts in a variety of states, including†California, New York, Rhode Island, and Iowa, where similar court battles have†erupted.