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Is NOM Acting Right?

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By Sofia Resnick

WASHINGTON -- "NOM is not a partisan organization or a stalking horse for either party," wrote National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown in March. "We are a movement of people of every race, creed, color -- and party -- willing to stand up for marriage."

NOM has long insisted that its battle against same-sex marriage transcends partisanship. "We're committed to achieving a majority for marriage, not any particular partisan majority," said Brown in announcing NOM's recent endorsement of an anti-marriage equality Democrat in New York.

Which is what makes NOM's close relationship with a right-wing fundraising and activism organization called ActRight so striking.

ActRight, which is also run by Brown and shares office space with NOM, has often been presented as the conservative answer to the successful progressive fundraising site ActBlue. Its website allows users to sign petitions, fund conservative organizations, and donate to politicians.

The site makes clear that when it comes to candidates, its focus is electing conservative Republicans. "All federal Republican candidates appear on ActRight," reads the "about us" page. "But from there you actually decide! Anyone who has become a member of ActRight by donating at least $5.00 to any federal candidate can vote RINO's off of the site by hitting the RINO button."

ActRight doesn't automatically list Democrats, but it doesn't ban them either. "Given that some third party candidates or even Democrats could be conservative (hey, it does happen!) we also allow you to vote candidates on." Still, as of May 15, none of the federal candidates listed on ActRight were Democrats.

Fighting same-sex marriage together

As a clearinghouse for conservative and Republican causes, ActRight makes it seem like the right's top priority is fighting against same-sex marriage.

Half of ActRight's "top causes" -- the groups the site has raised the most amount of money for – are campaigns pushing anti-gay marriage ballot measures in Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Washington state. NOM has been deeply involved with each of those campaigns. Most of the remaining top causes are groups affiliated with CatholicVote.org (a project of Fidelis, a socially conservative Catholic group), which also wants to prevent same-sex couples from marrying.

This placement does not appear to be coincidental.

As Good As You blogger Jeremy Hooper recently reported, the state anti-marriage equality campaigns backed by NOM have set up their websites so that online donations are processed through ActRight.

Hooper, who has written extensively about NOM's ties to ActRight, reported last year that contributions made through Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.)'s presidential campaign site website were being process through ActRight. McCotter continues to be the highest-earning candidate on ActRight.com.

In addition to allowing users to donate to candidates and causes, ActRight allows users to create and contribute to "actions," which mainly consist of petitions and letters to political leaders related to a particular cause. ActRight's "top action" for this month is "Dump Starbucks for Supporting Same Sex Marriage," an electronic petition informing the CEO and board of directors of Starbucks that signatories are "deeply offended by your corporate position to support same-sex marriage and your decision to oppose the reasonable moral views of half your US customers and the vast majority of your international consumers." The signers pledge not to patronize Starbucks until it stops "attacking the natural institution of marriage." NOM started the Dump Starbucks boycott initiative back in March.

Last week -- after President Obama declared his support for gay marriage and North Carolina voted to ban it -- NOM announced a new initiative called Stand for Marriage America, which allows marriage equality foes to contribute simultaneously to ballot campaigns in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington: "For every dollar you donate, 25 cents will go to each of the four state campaigns where marriage is on the ballot – or you can re-allocate your gift to particular states!"

NOM's Stand for Marriage America campaign is being conducted using ActRight. In a blog post on NOM's site, Brown repeatedly directs supporters to ActRight's site in order to fund the effort.

A close relationship

NOM's relationship with ActRight goes beyond simply sharing its president and cooperating in fundraising activities.

Just last month, ActRight's legal arm, ActRight Legal Services, took over as NOM's counsel in two different federal cases. They replaced Citizens United attorney James Bopp Jr. and his colleagues at the Bopp Law Firm, which for years has been representing NOM in its efforts to skirt campaign-disclosure laws. (At least four of the attorneys who joined ActRight Legal Services earlier this year are former Bopp attorneys.)

NOM has avoided directly promoting ActRight or declaring a formal relationship between the two organizations, though the address listed for ActRight and its various entities is the same as that listed for the National Organization for Marriage. (ActRight Fund -- the group's 527 arm -- lists rent paid to NOM on its IRS filings.)

The American Independent recently visited the K Street address listed by both NOM and ActRight, where we requested copies of ActRight's 2010 tax filings for its 501(c)3 (ActRight Educational Trust Fund) and 501(c)4 (ActRight Action). We could not be helped because, we were told, the relevant ActRight staff member had the day off. That ActRight staffer is Paul Bothwell, who at one point worked at NOM. Bothwell later told TAI in an email that for 2010, ActRight was "not required to file as we had too little activity." Bothwell would not confirm whether he was still working for NOM, but he responded to our inquiry using an actright.com email address instead of the nationformarriage.orgemail address at which we had originally contacted him.

Louis Marinelli, a former NOM employee who is now a marriage equality activist, released several of NOM's internal memos and emails earlier this year. Among the documents Marinelli posted were minutes from a meeting in which he and other NOM staffers discussed ActRight's technology at length.

Campaign-finance records for ActRight's political action committee (ActRight) and its 527 organization (ActRight Fund) show that recent big donations have come from past NOM donors.

The ActRight Fund's 2011 year-end report of contributions and expenditures showed that the bulk of its nearly $200,000 in itemized contributions came from one source, Sean Fieler of Equinox Partners LLP. Fieler -- who gave the group $195,000 -- is chairman of the American Principles Project, whose founder is Robert George, chairman emeritus of NOM. Excluding a bank payment refund, the rest -- four installments of $700 -- came from ActRight's PAC.

The ActRight Fund's 2012 first quarter report shows that it received $500,445 in itemized contributions. Nearly all of that came from one person: Terrence Caster, who helped bankroll the NOM-backed Proposition 8 in 2008.

According to version of NOM's 2008 tax return that was released by the Human Rights Campaign via a reported whistleblower, in 2008 Fieler gave $100,000 to NOM and Caster gave NOM $172,500.

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Filed by Elyse Siegel  |