Dirty Money

Though roundly defeated in the last election, the National Organization for Marriage is still committed to blocking marriage equality. Some evidence suggests that it’s turning to harsher speech, hiding donations, and rolling back campaign disclosure laws to accomplish its goals.



At left: Fred Karger


NOM’s Secret Funders
Each year, according to NOM’s tax filings, two or three donors give NOM between $1 million and $3.5 million apiece; another two or three give between $100,000 and $750,000; and 10 or so others give between $5,000 and $95,000. In 2009 the top five donors made up three fourths of NOM’s budget; in 2010 the top two donors gave two thirds of the year’s total donations; and in 2011 the top two donors gave three fourths of NOM’s total income. But those funders’ identities are a mystery. Their names are redacted on NOM’s federal tax returns. Under federal campaign laws, none of those names have to be disclosed.

But if, as Karger alleges, those donors are actually using NOM as a way to contribute to state issue campaigns, that would be illegal. The states in which NOM runs campaigns (via locally registered groups) require donors to publicly disclose their names and addresses and sometimes their employers. The allegation is that NOM establishes state campaign organizations against marriage equality as pass-through groups, with local partners that do little. NOM solicits major donations from its large contributors for these campaigns and donates to the local fights so that NOM, not the individual, will be listed as the donor. If true, that’s fraud and “financial structuring,” the technical term for money laundering. (Calls to the four state organizations asking for comment were not returned.)

For the marriage equality forces, things look different. Major donors such as Jeff Bezos, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Bill and Melinda Gates are listed as donors alongside groups like Freedom to Marry and the Human Rights Campaign. But NOM is overwhelmingly the primary donor to and central director of these local groups’ activities, with few or no other five- or six-figure donors. The television ads, websites, materials, and approach are all but identical from one local group to another; their websites are registered to Brian Brown and NOM.

Two calls in January to phone numbers listed for the anti–marriage equality campaign groups were answered by the local partner organization: The call to the Minnesota for Marriage phone number yielded a voice mail that said, “Hello, this is Pastor Evans at Christ Church Twin Cities.” A call to Protect Marriage Maine was answered by a woman who said, “Christian Civic League of Maine, may I help you?” Brian Brown noted that Maine’s Christian Civic League started as a temperance organization more than 100 years ago.

The idea behind campaign finance disclosure laws is, as Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis said, that “sunlight is…the best of disinfectants.” Knowing who is trying to influence whom about what helps protect us from secret shenanigans. But NOM touts its ability to protect its funders. In internal documents (which came to light because of a lawsuit that NOM brought against campaign finance disclosure, NOM v. McKee), NOM wrote, “One key advantage we now have is the capacity to protect the identity of our donors.” As it explained, “nationwide, we face a serious hurdle in getting state ballot initiatives and candidate campaigns funded because donors must be disclosed. However, if NOM makes a contribution from its own resources that are not specifically designated for one of these efforts donor identities are NOT disclosed.”