Conservative Groups Behind Florida’s Gay Marriage Ban Sued for Illegal Fundraising

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Tampa In 2008, 62% of Florida voters approved a state constitutional amendment that defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman, disappointing LGBT couples and advocates across the Sunshine State.

What now feels as though its ancient history, however, is now making headlines again, thanks to an ongoing investigation by the Florida Elections Commission into the allegations of illegal fundraisers by the amendment's backers.

Recently filed lawsuits seek to force prominent conservative faces to testify in the case—and that includes John Stemberger, president of the vehemently anti-gay Florida Family Policy Council.

The lawsuits stem from a complaint filed shortly before the Nov. 4, 2008, election by opponents of the Florida Marriage Protection Amendment, a committee called Florida Red and Blue.

It accused amendment backers of illegally funneling up to $1 million from a charitable group, Florida Family Action Inc., to the campaign committee backing the amendment, according to a story in the Tampa Tribune.

As in any political campaign—and under state law—all donors to a campaign related to a constitutional amendment are supposed to be reported publicly. But since charitable groups don't have to legally report donors, some believe the campaign committee was able to use anonymous contributions to pay for most of its campaign.

Florida Red and Blue said that was an attempt to "shield donors from disclosure" during the divisive campaign.

The complaint filed in court said Florida Family Action Inc. acted as "a secret funding conduit" for the campaign group pushing the amendment, Florida4Marriage.org.

A copy of an email from Stemberger to donors states that contributions to Florida Family Policy Council or Florida Family Action wouldn't be reported. And according to finance reports for Florida4Marriage, the organization received nearly half of its massive $2 million budget from FFA.

Derek Newton, a political operative with Florida Red and Blue, told the Tribune that the amendment may have fallen short of its required 60% of the vote if those raising money to support the amendment had had to report donors.

"In an election this close, it would be naïve to think $1 million in anonymous advertising had no impact," Newton said."This was a very contentious, emotional issue, and some amendment backers didn't want to be exposed publicly. That's like saying we want to do something unpopular, but we don't want to be unpopular for doing it."

Even though Florida law already prohibited same-sex marriage, the amendment lured conservative voters to the polls, who worried that marriage equality would find a way to creep into the state.

Watermark reached out to the Elections Commission, where a spokesperson said that all complaints are kept confidential until the investigations are complete.

Recently, the conservative and religious public interest law firm Liberty Council has stepped up to represent Stemberger and FFA. So far it has opposed subpoenas issued by the commission. The commission has also sent a subpoena to Robert Watson, a Tampa business man who is the treasurer of the Florida Family Policy Council.

Since the passage of Amendment 2, the FFA and Stemberger have continued to launch anti-LGBT causes across the state. Last summer, the organization rented planes to fly over Disney World to "warn" potential theme park attendees that Gay Days was in progress. Stemberger has also been a vocal opponent to domestic partnership registries in Hillsborough County, Tampa, Pinellas County and now, in Tallahassee.

He was seen by a Watermark staffer in Tallahassee on March 12, where the state was supposed to take up a domestic partner registry on a statewide level. That hearing was delayed.

From our media partners Watermark.Steve Blanchard


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