Behind rallies to reopen economy, a Minnesota activist and his family

People gather to protest outside of the governor's residence
Protesters gather outside of the governor's residence in St. Paul to demonstrate against the governor's recent executive orders to combat the coronavirus.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Updated: April 21, 12:14 p.m.

Last week, as cars and people filled the street in front of the governor’s residence, demanding an end to restrictions meant to fight COVID-19, a live video of the protest appeared on the group Minnesota Gun Rights’ Facebook page.

Amid the honking cars and the chants of “USA, USA,” the group’s leader, Ben Dorr, took credit for helping draw supporters to the rally. 

“We’re done being quarantined, we’re done having our freedoms taken,” said Dorr. “It’s time to open up America.” 

Across the country, Dorr and his older brothers, Chris and Aaron, have long opposed Republican legislators for not being conservative enough on issues ranging from guns to abortion. Their detractors say they spread disinformation to sow confusion among voters.

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Based on publicly available tax documents, the Dorrs’ efforts in Minnesota, Iowa and Ohio have raised more than $2.9 million since 2013, with at least a third of it going to a direct mail printing company in Iowa owned by the Dorr family. 

Now, the trio is using their pro-gun social media platforms to call for anti-quarantine protests in Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa and New York, just as President Trump commanded some governors on Twitter to “liberate” states with stay-at-home orders. 

In a year when experts are warning against disinformation campaigns meant to deepen political divides and influence the outcome of elections up and down the ballot — and now, on the outcome of a pandemic sweeping the globe — the Dorrs’ operation offers a window into how disinformation machines churn in our most vulnerable moments.

Ben Dorr declined an interview in early March when MPR News first started reporting on his operation, while Aaron and Chris Dorr didn’t respond to calls, texts or emails. Calls and emails to the Dorrs’ associates were not returned. 

Combined, the brothers have hundreds of thousands of social media followers, and in recent weeks have used their platforms to spread disinformation about the coronavirus. Some posts suggest it’s not as serious as scientists originally thought and others link quarantine measures to a liberal strategy to undermine personal freedoms.

Meanwhile, the Dorrs have launched a slate of private Facebook groups calling on officials to reopen states.

On the Reopen Minnesota page, which has 22,000 followers, members have likened coronavirus to the flu (coronavirus is more deadly), have questioned the science of wearing masks, even though it’s recommended by public health officials in Trump’s administration, and suggested that death rate numbers are being inflated to scare people into compliance.

“When people by the hundreds of thousands are dying per flu season do you walk out of your house with a mask wrapped around your face? Do you walk out of your house fearing for your life,” says a woman in one video post on the private page. “Does the government care about you then when you’re dying of a flu that comes around every single year? No.”

‘You’ve got to be kidding me’

While the Dorrs may have shifted their messaging to coronavirus, their tactics come from a playbook the brothers have cultivated over years in Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio. The Dorrs argue that even some of the most conservative elected officials in those states are too close to the center on gun rights and abortion, and then solicit donations and paid memberships from followers through a web of social media platforms, mailing lists and website. 

Together, the Dorr brothers are affiliated with at least nine other gun and anti-abortion nonprofits. 

Aaron, Chris and Ben Dorr’s father Paul is also well known for fighting public school referendums in Iowa and in the Midwest. Motivated by his belief that children should be home-schooled or within a religious community, he’s also created Facebook pages, websites and videos to make his case. 

Ben Dorr’s tactics were on display earlier this year when a video clip of a confrontation between Republican Rep. Josh Heintzeman and Dorr surfaced online.

“Your daddy votes to kill babies, did you know that?” Dorr asks Heintzeman’s 6-year-old son, who is hanging on his dad’s arm in a hallway of the Minnesota State Capitol.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” said Heintzeman, who routinely gets high marks from anti-abortion groups for his record. 

It’s an accusation that Dorr also lodged at Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life executive director Scott Fischbach, just as he was wrapping up the group’s annual March for Life earlier this year.  

“He took a video of it, and you can see on my face ‘I’m like, huh?’” said Fischbach, who leads the state’s largest anti-abortion group and had never encountered Dorr before. “It was shocking.” 

Dorr’s claim refers to the use of Medicaid funding to cover abortions, which is required as the result of a 1995 Minnesota Supreme Court decision. But Fischbach said Dorr’s claims are a distortion because the Legislature can’t overturn a court ruling. 

Fischbach said Dorr’s claims are meant to confuse people who have opposed abortion for years. 

“He’s trying to discredit those we have worked with for decades, who have been in the battle for some time,” Fischbach said. “It’s sad because he’s preying on individuals whose hearts are pure and want to see an end to abortion, and he’s flat out lying to them.”

‘Misleading people’

Minnesota lawmakers are also troubled by Ben Dorr’s tactics — so much so that they, along with the Republican Party of Minnesota, launched a website earlier this year denouncing his organizations as scams. 

It’s an unusual move for a party that’s typically in lock-step on key conservative issues such as gun rights and abortion.

But House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said Ben Dorr’s influence at the State Capitol is questionable. 

While Ben and his brother Chris are registered as lobbyists, Daudt said they do little to advance issues at the Capitol or support legislators during campaign season. 

He recalled seeing Ben Dorr filming a video on the Capitol steps several years ago: 

“He was just going on and on about how he’s going to turn around right now and go to so-and-so’s office and I’m not going to leave until they take a meeting with me,” Daudt said. “Then they cut the video ... and they just wandered off to their vehicles.”

“They are definitely misleading people to make people think they are involved and engaged here,” Daudt said.  

Daudt said he’s been a target of Dorr’s for years — for instance, a claim that Daudt’s caucus didn’t do enough to pass pro-gun bills when Republicans were in the majority. In fact, Republicans passed five bills important to gun owners, including one that would allow carry permits from some other states.

Even though House Democrats are now in the majority, Dorr is still targeting Republicans. As Democrats passed stricter gun measures earlier this year, Dorr filmed a video outside the House chamber calling Republicans RINOs, or “Republican in Name Only.”  

“Losers, anti-gun RINOs,” Dorr said. “This place is filled with them.” 

Every House Republican opposed the gun control bills. 

Steady stream of cash

While Republican lawmakers say Ben Dorr’s influence at the Capitol may be minuscule, his group has thousands of passionate followers online who regularly tune into Dorr’s lengthy YouTube videos about gun rights. 

The strategy ensures a steady stream of cash for Dorr’s Minnesota Gun Rights, which topped $273,000 in 2018 — the group’s largest haul yet. 

But Republican lawmakers have lingering questions about how that money is spent. 

“They prey on fear. People are alarmed, and they ask for money,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake.

Minnesota Gun Rights has no political fund registered with the state campaign finance board, so it’s not clear how much they’ve ever spent to elect a candidate. And it’s organized as a 501(c)(4), which means the group can advocate for or against public policy issues, but donors and donations are opaque. 

In a lengthy video, posted earlier this month, the Dorr brothers explained the family’s private business, Midwest Freedom Enterprises, a direct mail printing operation they created in 2010 because it was cheaper than outsourcing the work.  

“We built this with our dollars,” said Aaron Dorr said of the company. “Not a dime of this money came from ... members.”

But according to documents filed with the IRS, more than $1 million of the money raised by Iowa Gun Owners, Minnesota Gun Rights and affiliated gun groups track back to Midwest Freedom Enterprises. 

Those forms also list Midwest Freedom Enterprises as doing all the nonprofit’s management work.

The IRS requires a variety of disclosures to make ties between nonprofit and for-profit businesses clear. But to date, the Dorrs have not followed these rules. 

“Most nonprofits do not conduct business with another for-profit business owned by anyone on their board,” said Steve Anseth, who leads the nonprofit division of accounting firm Abdo, Eick and Meyers. “That said, it’s not against the law, it’s not improper.” 

But Anseth said that those relationships need to be made clear on tax forms. 

“The nonprofit needs to be getting the same value that they could get from any other company or a better value,” Anseth added. “You don’t have to demonstrate that on the 990 [form], but if the IRS comes and looks at it, you have to demonstrate it to the IRS.”

Now, the coronavirus may serve as another way for the Dorrs to expand their membership and funding. 

Back in Saint Paul in front of the governor’s mansion, Ben Dorr encouraged protestors to visit his website. There, people can pay to become members of his gun rights group. 

“Get involved, fight, take our country back,” he said. “Go to Get on board.” 

Correction (April 21, 2020): A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the amount of money Minnesota Gun Rights raised in 2018. The story has been updated.

This is part of “Can You Believe It?” a series of stories and resources focused on giving you the tools to fight disinformation heading into Election 2020. You can find more resources here. What have you been seeing?