Disclosure Advocates Agog over Campaign-Finance Decision on Minnesota Family Council

By Hawkins, Beth | MinnPost.com, June 12, 2012 | Go to article overview

Disclosure Advocates Agog over Campaign-Finance Decision on Minnesota Family Council


Hawkins, Beth, MinnPost.com


In 2011, the Minnesota Family Council raised $346,994.05 through its political fund. It quite literally spent even that last nickel promoting a proposed constitutional amendment that would bar same- sex marriage.

The organization, whose mission is "to strengthen the families of Minnesota by advancing biblical principles in the public arena," spent $121,000 directly on the ballot question. The rest it donated to Minnesota for Marriage, the political committee it belongs to that was formed specifically to promote the ballot question.

Minnesota for Marriage, like its national member-counterpart, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), is fighting hard not to disclose its donors, who it says will then be subjected to violence and harassment at the hands of gay activists. Critics contend the real motive for the secrecy is to hide the fact that the vast majority of the money comes from some half-dozen individuals.

Other states and courts have consistently ordered NOM to comply with campaign finance laws. To date, it has not. Minnesota could be the first state where it doesn't even need to fight.

Last week, the state Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board rejected a complaint filed in March by Common Cause of Minnesota, which claimed that MFC was violating state law by refusing to name its donors. In arriving at its conclusion, the board relied on two different dictionary definitions -- one from Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, the other from the Oxford English dictionary - - of the word "purpose."

The MFC hailed the decision as the right outcome.

"We applaud the decision of the board," CEO John Helmberger said in a statement. "The Common Cause complaint was nothing but a political stunt designed to harass donors to MFC. It is clear that MFC complied with Minnesota law and all of the CFB's guidance and we anticipated that the CFB would reject the complaint upon completion of their analysis."

Clean-elections advocates were, to put it mildly, agog.

"I am troubled on a couple of grounds," said David Schultz, a professor at the Hamline University School of Law and a nationally recognized expert in campaign finance law. "If you want a road map for figuring out who's giving to whom, we clearly don't have that. This decision telegraphs a road map for other groups on how to avoid disclosure."

Purpose of group is seen as broader

The gist of the board's decision: Whether MFC's activities now focus, or have focused over time, on passing the constitutional amendment, its purpose, as stated since its 1997 incorporation as a nonprofit (a precursor group was started in 1983), is broader. It may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to influence the outcome of the election while not disclosing the sources to voters.

Critics complain the board, composed of six political appointees who deliberate and decide complaints behind closed doors, has become "increasingly ineffective" over the last decade. In particular, Schultz and others worry, it seems to have loosened reporting rules significantly since the most recent statute passed by the legislature in 2010 in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Citizens United decision.

"I'm very concerned about the precedent this sets," said Mike Dean, executive director of Common Cause of Minnesota and the author of the MFC complaint as well as many of others pending before the board. "Is this really how they're going to decide things in the future? It appears they did nothing to gather information on what an organization's major purpose is."

IRS standard is clear

A group's purpose is one of the first factors campaign-finance officials at both the federal and state level consider when deciding which registration and disclosure laws apply to its activities. The Internal Revenue Service has a clear standard: If a group spends 50 percent or more of its revenue on politics its major purpose is political and it must register with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). …

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