Gay marriage foes avoid disclosure requirements

Chuck Darrell
Minnesota for Marriage's spokesman, Chuck Darrell has been a point man in building a statewide coalition of pastors and churchgoers charged with convincing lawmakers to put the marriage amendment on the statewide ballot.
MPR file photo/Tom Scheck

(AP) The two groups pushing hardest for a constitutional ban on gay marriage in Minnesota have not filed lobbyist disclosure reports, despite their work at the forefront of a debate that's dominated the Capitol much of the last three years.

Instead, Minnesota for Marriage and Minnesota Citizens in Defense of Marriage have designated themselves as political committees working on a ballot question. The distinction means they face less stringent reporting requirements for salaries, advertising and PR campaigns, among other things, than do registered lobbyists.

Both groups say their attorneys have assured them they are within the law. But lawmakers who have been targeted by the groups, and activists on the other side of the issue, say they see a loophole that's allowing their opponents to exert influence at the Capitol without a full accounting of their spending.

"They come to the Capitol, they send people to talk to legislators, that to me is lobbying," said C. Scott Cooper, a lobbyist for OutFront Minnesota, the gay-rights group leading the opposition to the proposed constitutional amendment, which would ask voters if they want to prohibit legal recognition of same-sex relationships.

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Cooper's group is registered as a lobbyist group and also employs several individually registered lobbyists. The group most recently reported spending $53,406 on lobbying in the second half of 2005, with about $32,000 going to staff salaries, $15,000 on PR campaigns and $6,000 on media advertising.

Most years see a few proposals for constitutional ballot questions at the Capitol, with advocacy groups usually springing up on both sides of the issue. This year, in addition to gay marriage, wildlife enthusiasts are pushing for an amendment to dedicate part of the state sales tax to preserve hunting and fishing habitats.

Said Lance Ness, a volunteer lobbyist with the Fish and Wildlife Legislative Alliance: "Absolutely without question, I register as a lobbyist."

In the last two years, the definition of marriage has been the subject of legislative hearings, press conferences, grassroots organizing, print and broadcast advertising campaigns, Capitol rallies and summit meetings. Minnesota for Marriage and Minnesota Citizens in Defense of Marriage have organized much of that activity.

State law says groups working on ballot questions don't have to file as lobbyists - even though the Legislature is the only entity that can put a question on the ballot.

"That's not lobbying," said Jeff Davis, president of Minnesota Citizens in Defense of Marriage, which has regularly run newspaper and TV ads pushing a handful of rural DFL senators to send the measure to voters. "That's education."

But legislators who have been targeted by the groups say it feels like lobbying to them.

"It's so obvious that's what they are," said Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon. "I'm getting hundreds of their cards coming into the Capitol, they're going around my district and putting up my picture, saying I'm the major obstacle to stopping a vote on this ... obviously, that's lobbying."

One professional lobbyist agreed.

"My initial response is, if they're lobbying the Legislature to get a ballot question on the ballot, that's lobbying," said Dominic Sposeto, who also chairs the legislative committee of the Minnesota Governmental Relations Council, a professional group for lobbyists.

The other group, Minnesota for Marriage, is an affiliate of the Minnesota Family Council, a conservative policy organization. The Family Council's president, Tom Prichard, is a registered lobbyist, and the organization itself is registered as a lobby group.

"Minnesota for Marriage was established for the purposes of working on the ballot question," said John Helmberger, CEO of the Family Council and chairman of Minnesota for Marriage.

Minnesota for Marriage's spokesman, Chuck Darrell has been a point man in building a statewide coalition of pastors and churchgoers charged with convincing lawmakers to put the marriage amendment on the statewide ballot.

The two groups have reported spending in the past: $105,937 in 2004 by Minnesota Citizens in Defense of Marriage, $199,904 last year by Minnesota for Marriage. But neither group said they spent $50,000 or more to influence legislative action, which would have triggered the reporting requirement.

Davis said his group will exceed the $50,000 limit this year, and will file as a lobby group for the first time. The first lobbying reports of 2006 are due in mid-June.

After inquiries by The Associated Press, Jeanne Olson, the executive director of the state Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, had staff look into the status of the two anti-gay marriage groups. She said if the amounts reported were spent directly on the ballot question campaigns, the two groups had satisfied their reporting requirements.

The state's campaign finance and disclosure system is largely self-policing, though anyone can file a complaint against a person or group. The Campaign Finance Board can levy fines if it investigates and finds violations.

Individuals also have to file as lobbyists if they earn more than a cursory amount working the issue. Davis, though, said his work is volunteer, meaning he doesn't have to register, and his group doesn't have to register as one that employs a lobbyist.

Helmberger said that Darrell is considered a communications director, not one of the Family Council's legislative contacts.

"If you're doing it on your own time, you're OK," Olson said.

The Minnesota Governmental Relations Council has generally favored strong disclosure laws for groups pursuing their goals at the Legislature.

"It's transparency, so you can see who's paying and what they're paying for," Sposeto said. "We think any group that's lobbying should follow the same standards that anyone has to."