When the National Organization for Marriage and the Minnesota Family Council spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads promoting a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions last fall, the groups should have reported those expenditures, according to a complaint filed with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board earlier this month. The complaint, which focuses on ads launched throughout the 2010 campaign cycle in support of gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, asks for financial penalties as well as an audit of NOM’s spending in Minnesota.
The filing by Common Cause Minnesota alleges that the Minnesota Family Council – and in particular its lobbyist, Tom Prichard – failed to report lobbying expenses related to several ads. Since the ad urged the public and legislators to act on legislation, in this case a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, it constitutes lobbying, the group argues in the complaint. The ads in question include references to an actual bill, SF120, and were created and distributed in partnership with NOM.
Here’s the ad:
First, it tells the public to contact DFL lawmakers. The ad states: “Most DFL lawmakers don’t want you to have a say. When they ask for your support, ask them if they will guarantee your right to vote on marriage.” Second, it identified a legislator who could vote on the legislation by specifically mentioning a state representative at the time, Rep. Kelliher. It also included the name of the current governor.
One such ad also featured the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., asserting that he would have wanted a statewide vote on gay marriage.
The complaint, which cites Minnesota Independent’s reporting on the ads throughout the election cycle, asks for a penalty of $3,000.
The filing also notes that Prichard and MFC have been dinged for the same thing in the past: “Considering the nature of the scheme and the fact that this is the second time that Mr. Prichard has violated this very statute by failing to disclose lobbyist expenditures associated with urging public action to influence legislative action, we believe that there is clear intent to violate the statute. Mr. Prichard cannot claim that he did not know about the reporting requirements.”
Common Cause also filed a second complaint that alleges that NOM failed to register as a lobbying group in the state.
“[T]he group should have registered with the Campaign Finance Disclosure Board as a principal lobbyist,” the complaint states. “The Campaign Finance Disclosure Board (‘CFDB’) website clearly states that groups that intend to influence legislative action must register with the CFDB.”
On May 18, 2010, the Minnesota Independent ran a story on how the National Organization for Marriage and the Minnesota Family Council were coordinating a $200,000 media buy in Minnesota to oppose legislation to “redefine marriage.” In a press release, the National Organization for Marriage “called on elected officials to let the people vote on this critical issue.” This makes it clear that their intent was to influence legislative action.
Common Cause is seeking specific penalties against NOM. It’s urging the board to fine NOM $1,000 and to conduct an audit of NOM’s financial records to ensure that the reporting requirements are satisfied.
The campaign finance board has accepted Minnesota Common Cause’s complaint and is in the process of investigating.
“Minnesota’s lobbyist disclosure laws are designed to shine some sunlight on how special interests attempt to influence decisions at the capitol,” Mike Dean, Executive Director of Common Cause Minnesota, said in a statement. “Both organizations have attempted to operate in the shadows by failing to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars spent influencing legislators at the capitol.”
The Minnesota Independent raised questions about NOM’s and MFC’s activities in Minnesota last fall, in particular a mailer that attacked openly gay Republican Sen. Paul Koering. He lost reelection in 2010.
Read Common Cause’s complaint alleging failure to register as a lobbyist, and their complaint alleging failure to disclose expenditures, below.