A Minnesota anti-LGBT group has effectively dodged a disclosure rules breach because of a loophole that allows them to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars toward political actions without disclosing donors so long as the group’s “major purpose” does not qualify it as a “political committee.”
This is a decision issued by the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board last week who, in dismissing a complaint by Common Cause Minnesota, found that the Minnesota Family Council, an anti-LGBT group that has supported a campaign to enact a constitutional amendment codifying the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, did not technically break any disclosure rules by failing to disclose the names of several of its donors.
Based on the clear language of the new definition and on its legislative history, the Board has concluded that activities to influence legislators in their decision regarding placing a question on the ballot must be reported through the lobbyist disclosure program, but do not constitute activities to promote or defeat a ballot question that would trigger a political committee or fund registration requirement. Even if the Board was to conclude that MFC’s major purpose is to define marriage as being limited to the union of one man and one woman, that conclusion would not be a sufficient basis on which to find that MFC is a political committee.
MFC’s efforts over the years have included extensive lobbying to enact legislation that forwards its mission or to defeat legislation that it opposes. MFC also engages in public outreach on issues. None of these activities are included in the scope of actions that would make an association a political committee.
The complaint against MFC came about after Minnesota for Marriage Chairman John Helmberger allegedly 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. The solicited donations were never disclosed and this, Common Cause Minesota said, put Minnesota Family Council in breach of finance rules.
However, the Board’s findings go on to say that whether MFC is in fact a political action committee or not depends on its “purpose,” and viewed in this way the group has not become a political committee:
The definition of political committee is based on the purpose of the association; that is, the reason the association exists. Applying this definition, the purpose of an association is more synonymous with its mission than with some particular end result that it might achieve toward that broader mission. MFC’s mission is well-stated by Mr. Prichard in his affidavit quoted above. MFC’s activities have been consistent with that mission. During its existence, MFC has undertaken a variety of activities, including its current intensive efforts to ensure passage of the marriage definition ballot question. The Board concludes that MFC’s 2011 and 2012 efforts to pass the ballot question are in furtherance of its purpose but do not narrow that purpose from its more broadly stated mission. Thus, MFC has not become a political committee as a result of these activities.
So because MFC’s actions can be seen as part of a broader purpose established prior to the ballot question, and because the group continues to act in a way that is consistent with that so called broader purpose, it has not transgressed into becoming a political committee whose sole aim is to pass the gay marriage ballot initiative.
As such the Board finds:
There is no probable cause to find that the major purpose of Minnesota Family Council is to promote the Minnesota marriage definition ballot question. Thus, there is no probable cause to find that Minnesota Family Council is a political committee under Minnesota Statutes Chapter 10A
This despite the fact that the group has apparently been used to prop up a sister group whose sole purpose is to pass the gay marriage ban.
A key disclaimer in the Board’s reasoning is the following statement on which everything else seems to hang:
While the Board is not saying in these findings that an association may never change its major purpose, it is saying that MFC has not done so based on its mission over its entire existence. If the Board is to evaluate an association’s major purpose over a shorter period of time than its entire existence, that direction should come from the legislature.
There is a body of evidence that MFC’s major if not sole purpose has, for the past few years at least, been to push the ballot initiative. However, the Board is saying that it must look to MFC’s wider context, giving that weight over recent activities, until the Legislature directs it to do otherwise. Regardless of the ailing logic of this position, it does not unfortunately stop the Board from seemingly being technically correct in how it has interpreted current law.
The import of this, though, should be massively concerning for anyone interested in proper disclosure as it seems to point to a loophole that could be freely and easily exploited so long as agenda groups can find existing organizations to effectively host their campaigns and shield them from disclosure mandates.
Read more: ballot, citizens united, civil rights, domestic partnerships, gay rights, gop, james bopp, lgbt Minnesota, lgbt rights, marriage equality, minnesota, minnesota lgbt, public disclosure, referendum, same-sex marriage, voter initiative
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