How NOM is shielding its donors from Minnesota voters

A campaign in Minnesota to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage has thus far generated more than $1 million from various religious groups and a coalition called Minnesota for Marriage, whose chief member is the National Organization for Marriage. Despite all the money coming in, however, only seven donors have been listed in the state's campaign finance disclosure reports. Experts have told The American Independent this dearth of donors could mean these groups are exploiting a loophole recently set up by Minnesota's campaign finance board.

That loophole was brought to NOM's attention by Cleta Mitchell, an attorney with ties to tea party candidates and an expert in campaign finance loopholes. NOM hired her as a lobbyist in Minnesota on the campaign finance issue. Last fall, Mitchell went to the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board seeking an opinion on various disclosure issues. NOM has followed that opinion to the letter in order to hide its donors.

For instance, Mitchell asked the board if NOM would have to disclose its donors if the group sent out solicitations that mentioned the Minnesota amendment but also included general news about NOM's nationwide efforts.

The board provided guidance that said NOM wouldn't have to report if they only asked supporters for general donations, not ones specific to the Minnesota marriage-amendment campaign.

"Although donors might 'assume' that part or all of their donation will be used to promote the Minnesota ballot question, they might also assume that all or part of the donation will be used in other states or for other NOM projects," the board wrote (PDF).

For that reason -- and since NOM hasn't expressly asked for money for Minnesota (even though they raised almost a quarter million for Minnesota purposes) -- they don't have to disclose their donors.

An example is a recent email from NOM:

Speaking of politics changing culture, we just helped form a new ballot initiative committee, Minnesotans for Marriage. In 2012, we hope, pray and expect that the people of Minnesota, after a dignified and civil debate, will join 31 other states in voting to protect marriage as the union of one man and one woman. They will give a visible rebuke to those who claim that the majority of Americans support gay marriage, and rebuking the voices of despair who claim that the fight for marriage cannot be won. Thank you for all you make possible. At NOM we want no less than to be your voice for your values—and for the truth about the human person: We are born male and female, called to come together in love so that the future can happen.

God bless you; and please pray for Sen. Rev. Díaz, and for everyone on the front lines of this great battle for God's truth about marriage.

Brian S. Brown
National Organization for Marriage

P.S. For the sake of the next generation, marriage must be defended and the truth about marriage must be proclaimed in the public square. But for us to get that message out, we need your help. Please consider what you can give, whether it's $15 or $150. We will do everything in our power to make your voice heard, to win more victories for marriage.

In addition to the mentions of Minnesota, the email solicitation also includes information about NOM's activities in Illinois, Rhode Island and New York.

Mitchell also asked the board if NOM would have to disclose its donors if it gave money to Minnesota groups from its general treasury either made up of donations not specific to the Minnesota effort or made up of "membership dues."

The board said that NOM would not have to disclose:

The Board understands these questions to be related to receipts of money that would not be defined as "contributions" under Chapter 10A. If they are not contributions, the money would constitute general treasury funds. General treasury funds consist of both voluntary donations to the association and money that the association characterizes as membership dues or fees.

NOM listed its revenues in Minnesota as membership dues in a checkbox on forms that ballot initiative groups must file with the state.

The other three groups raising money in Minnesota used similar techniques to shield the sources of $1.2 million from voters.

The Catholic Church, through its public policy wing, the Minnesota Catholic Conference (PDF), raised $750,000 to pass the amendment -- all of it through "investment income." It sent $350,000 to the Minnesota for Marriage coalition, thus no donors are listed other than the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the Diocese of New Ulm, and the Diocese of Duluth.

The Minnesota Family Council put $346,000 into its political fund, called the Minnesota Family Council Marriage Protection Fund (PDF) and sent $226,000 of that money to Minnesota for Marriage. By funneling the money through two funds, it avoided having to disclose its donors.

The NOM Minnesota Marriage Fund (PDF) received $284,000 in contributions. It listed those contributions as coming from "membership dues or membership fees" and is not required to disclose the donors. It gave $250,000 to Minnesota for Marriage (PDF).

"These reports show an unprecedented amount of secret money flowing into the amendment campaigns," Mike Dean of Common Cause Minnesota told The American Independent. "In analyzing the reports, Common Cause Minnesota found that the Vote Yes groups disclosed only 0.2 percent of their individual donors, while the Vote No groups disclosed 78 percent of of their donations."

Indeed, Minnesotans United for All Families -- the coalition working to defeat the anti-gay marriage amendment -- reported raising $1.2 million from more than 5,100 donors.

"The Vote Yes groups are attempting to avoid Minnesota's disclosure rules by laundering money through these various organizations," Dean said. "Unfortunately, what they are doing may be legal, thanks to the decision made by the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board in the last several months. Essentially the board has provided the groups with a roadmap on how they can avoid disclosure, and Wednesday's reports show how the groups followed that roadmap."

The groups lobbied hard to get those loopholes. Minnesota for Marriage has hired two high-profile lawyers to argue their case to the campaign finance board and to find loopholes to avoid allowing the public to know where the money is coming from.

In addition to having Mitchell as a registered lobbyist, Minnesota for Marriage has paid about $40,000 to hire James Bopp, Jr., an attorney who worked on the successful Citizens United Supreme Court case, and has represented NOM in a half-dozen other states in largely unsuccessful attempts to shield campaign donor information.

Already, LGBT and government watchdog groups are looking into the legalities of NOM's and the other "Vote Yes" groups' reports.

“We’ve seen this movie before in plenty of other states," Joe Solmonese, head of the Human Rights Campaign, said on Wednesday in a statement calling for an investigation. "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."

Common Cause Minnesota said the secrecy is stifling the democratic process.

"Disclosure is essential to ensure a fair and open public debate on the marriage amendment," Dean  told TAI. "The Vote Yes groups are trying to make sure that a fair and open debate does not occur. The questions that I have is, 'What are these groups trying to hide?'

"Our democracy is doomed if people don't have the political courage to stand behind the political ads that they support," Dean continued. "This data is a fundamental piece of information that allows the public to hold the speaker accountable to their words."

Image: (Flickr Creative Commons/AMagill)