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Opponents of
Florida's Marriage Ban Charge Measure's Proponents
With Illegal Activity

Opponents of
Florida's Marriage Ban Charge Measure's Proponents
With Illegal Activity

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Leaders of an organization fighting to defeat Florida's Amendment 2 have filed a complaint with the state's election commission that Florida4Marriage, which supports the ban, has illegally used money from anonymous donors to pay for TV ads.

A political action committee that is fighting Florida's proposed gay marriage ban, Amendment 2, filed a complaint with the Florida Election Committee Tuesday alleging that proponents of the amendment are violating state election law.

Leaders of Florida Red and Blue say the chairman of the campaign to pass Amendment 2, John Stemberger, has illegally paid for ads supporting the measure through an entity that's funded by anonymous donors.

Derek Newton, campaign manager for Florida Red and Blue, claims that Stemberger funneled nearly $350,000 from Florida Family Action to Florida4Marriage for the express purpose of buying time for TV ads. Florida Family Action, which can take anonymous donations, has a 501c(4) tax code designation and is therefore prohibited from engaging in direct advocacy or soliciting funds for the passage or defeat of a measure. Conversely, political action committees, such as Florida Red and Blue and Florida4Marriage, are legally empowered to raise and dispense money in support of political campaigns, but they are required to disclose the names of their donors.

Records from the Florida State Department's Division of Elections show that, as of October 10, Florida4Marriage had raised about $977,000 in 2008, with approximately $698,000 of its contributions coming from Florida Family Action.

"They're in essence running a campaign where half of their donors are not public," said Newton, who has run political campaigns in the Sunshine State for the past 20 years. "This is the biggest campaign finance violation I've ever seen in Florida, and it is monumentally illegal. But will it impact the vote in two weeks? I don't know."

The smoking gun that pushed opponents of Amendment 2 to take action was a fund-raising e-mail Stemberger circulated that listed three organizations to which supporters of the ban could donate, in order of preference. Florida Family Action was listed first, with a descriptor underneath that read "Confidential Gift with no public disclosure." Florida4Marriage was listed second, with the designation "Gifts ARE publicly reported."

"It's just clear as can be, he set up this secret anonymous entity to funnel money and keep people secret," Newton said of the e-mail. "The entire point of having election laws in Florida is so that voters know who's writing checks, they know how much money these organizations have, and they know what they're spending it on."

Newton says opponents of Amendment 2 are pursuing every legal option at their disposal as quickly as they can to force Florida4Marriage to comply with the law. They are requesting that Stemberger disclose who has donated to Florida Family Action, stop transferring money between the two entities, and take down TV ads that Newton says incorrectly state they are paid for by Florida4Marriage.

The Advocate could not reach Stemberger for comment, but in statements elsewhere he has refused to discontinue the advertising and denied all allegations of wrongdoing.

"We will ignore all of their so-called demands because they're all improper and illegitimate, and we will get back on message as to why gay marriage is a bad idea for Florida," Stemberger told the Associated Press Tuesday. But in the same article, he also defended the practice of taking undisclosed donations, saying, "Some people want to remain anonymous. It's because of the intimidation of our opponents."

Newton was dumbfounded by what may have been Stemberger's unwitting admission of illegal activity. "You could knock me over with a feather that he would say that to the Associated Press," he said. "Bottom line, he's going to be in a lot of legal trouble for a long time."

Though Florida Red and Blue lawyers were considering approaching a circuit court judge to force the Florida4Marriage into compliance, they were unsure how effective the move would be now that the case has already been presented to the Florida Elections Commission. Newton said the commission would almost surely conduct its investigation after Election Day.

But the political consequence of the lawsuit is that it could very well become a distraction for opponents of the antigay initiative. "We have a winning political case to make," Newton said. "If we can stay focused on making that political case to the voters, all their illegal stuff really is moot."

Newton's main objective is continuing to raise money to air an ad about a domestic-partnered straight couple, "Helene and Wayne," who would be equally as harmed by the measure as any same-sex couple (the amendment prohibits recognition of all unions that resemble marriage, whether they are between straight or gay partners).

"That ad scores a 52% no vote when we show it to voters. So it is lethally effective when we only need to get to 40," Newton said, referring to the fact that a full 60% of voters must approve the initiative to pass it. "Every quarter I can find in the cushions of my couch is going to go behind that ad."

State Division of Elections files show that Florida Red and Blue has raised just over $3 million as of October 10, while Fairness For All Families, another organization fighting the amendment, has raised an additional $592,000.

If Stemberger is found to have violated the law, he could be held responsible for triple damages, as could donors to Florida Family Action, according to Florida election law. But Florida Red and Blue's attorneys say the legal outcome of the charges will not have any effect retroactively on the results of the vote on Amendment 2.

"Our only hope, of course, is that voters here see what's going on and get to express their feelings at the ballot box," Newton said.

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