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Gay marriage ban tactic questioned

Supporters of a ballot measure that would amend Florida's Constitution to ban gay marriage are encouraging donors to avoid public disclosure by contributing to groups that don't have to list contributions.

The campaign tactic, laid out in an e-mail Florida4Marriage.org leader John Stemberger sent to supporters last month, was brought to light Tuesday by opponents to Amendment 2.

Florida Red & Blue, which opposes the gay marriage ban, contend Stemberger's efforts have led to misleading disclosures on campaign advertisements because the ads were actually paid for by another group, Florida Family Action, not Florida4Marriage.

The opponents said Tuesday they were filing a complaint with the Florida Elections Commission and asking various state attorneys in areas where the ads were broadcast to investigate. They also wrote television stations that were airing the ads requesting that they be pulled.

"It's clearly an attempt to avoid disclosing these donors who are funding these ads," said Derek Newton, campaign manager for Florida Red & Blue.

Stemberger countered that no laws had been broken. "It's entirely proper under state and federal law. There's no violations. This is done around the country on a routine basis," he said.

"They can be upset with the law," Stemberger said. "If they don't like the law, they should seek to have the law changed."

At issue is a Sept. 2 e-mail Stemberger sent to supporters that requested donations to one of three organizations, all of them founded by Stemberger, one of Florida's most active social conservatives. The e-mail notes two of the organizations don't have to disclose contributions.

Stemberger makes clear his first choice is for donations to go to Florida Family Action, a self-described federal lobbying group that does not file financial disclosures with the state elections office.

The other two groups listed are Florida4Marriage, which is subject to state campaign finance disclosure requirements, and Florida Family Policy Council, the first group Stemberger created which is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) that can spend money only on education efforts. Gifts to the policy council, the document notes, are also confidential.

At least one campaign finance expert says Florida law is fairly specific when it comes to disclosing advocacy.

John French, a Tallahassee lawyer who advises campaigns on elections and campaign finance laws, said that Florida laws generally require those who are trying to "influence the results of an election" to report their contributors.

"If they really are doing neutral voter registration, that's all right. But if there's a call to action, you need to do this, then they'd be raising money to influence," French said, which means they'd be governed by Florida campaign finance laws.

Ben Wilcox of Common Cause, a public advocacy group, joined Florida Red & Blue Tuesday in denouncing Amendment 2 backers' fundraising efforts.

"I think it is really questionable what they're doing, because it definitely looks like it's trying to circumvent our campaign finance laws," said Wilcox.

Common Cause, is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that lobbies in the way Florida Family Action does.

Staff writer Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report. Austin Bogues can be reached at abogues@sptimes.com or (727)-893-8872.

Gay marriage ban tactic questioned 10/21/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 22, 2008 4:24pm]
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