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AP finds spending overlap in Iowa Focus on the Family affiliate’s use of $2M federal grant

A chunk of federal money awarded to the Iowa Family Policy Center (IFPC) — a division of The Family Leader, a Focus on the Family affiliate — between 2006 and 2010 was used to pay the salaries of officials who at the time were leading an anti-same-sex marriage campaign, reports the Associated Press.

Through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the AP obtained documents showing that the $2.2 million received by the IFPC as part of a U.S. Healthy Marriage Demonstration Fund grant to counsel and educate married couples also went to covering the organization’s operational expenses, including rent, Internet, telephone and the salaries of five employees. The timing of the so-called “Marriage Matters” program coincided with the IFPC’s push against the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling that legalized gay marriage.

The AP also reports that throughout the course of the federally-funded program, the IFPC refused to counsel same-sex couples; however, this was in compliance with the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex couples.

According to AP’s analysis of the documents gathered, there is no indication that the IFPC violated any laws, even though the policy center and its political and advocacy arms are all housed in the same office from which the federally-funded marriage program was administered.

From the AP:

HHS documents describe the extent to which tax dollars helped fund its predecessor, which is greater than a spokesman previously acknowledged. In the final grant year that ended Sept. 30, the group used $192,000 of the money to pay part of the salaries and benefits of five employees, including President Chuck Hurley, an activist known for lobbying and campaigning for a conservative Christian agenda.

Center Vice President Mike Hartwig, who ran the Marriage Matters program, operations manager Chris Nitzschke, and two other employees also received salary funding under the grant, but the documents redact specific amounts. Hurley said he was the overall project administrator, and received 10 percent of his salary from the grant. … When asked in April, Nitzschke said the grant paid for Hartwig’s salary but didn’t mention the others, including that more than half of his own salary came from the grant.

The AP also notes that IFPC used the grant money to pay for contractors to recruit and train couple mentors ($250,000); telephone and Internet services ($7,000); office supplies ($5,000); other program support ($20,000); and to pay for part of the rent for an office in suburban Des Moines, which, according to AP, is owned by a company “partly controlled” by Harry Elder, who at the time served on the IFPC’s board of directors. Records indicate that during the four-year course of the grant program, 6,000 individuals were served.

Last year, The Iowa Independent, The American Independent’s sister site, reported that the IFPC received more than $3 million in federal grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services between 2004 and 2009 — $850,000 from the Administration for Children and Families’ Compassion Capital Fund in 2004 and 2005, and the $2.2 million through the Healthy Marriage program, which is the subject of the AP’s report. Back then, The Iowa Independent reported that, according to a representative of the Healthy Marriage program, overlap in spending for the grant program and the grantee’s operational expenses “might occur” but is “not technically allowed.”

Following the Independent story, IFPC’s spokesman Bryan English told the Des Moines Register and Iowa Public Radio that it would no longer accept the funds, a decision that was made at a board meeting in September 2009 but that still hadn’t been announced in 2010.

Through a records request with ACF, the Independent learned that the IFPC only notified the federal government it would forgo additional funding on Aug. 10, 2010. In the letter to the ACF (PDF), IFPC President Chuck Hurley wrote: “We believe federal constraints are impeding our progress to help a broader range of couples. We believe organizationally we are in a position to become privately funded.”

If the IFPC had decided to relinquish funding at their September 2009 board meeting, they had already received the $550,000 award for 2009-2010.

The Family Leader — and its leader Bob Vander Plaats — is considered to be a force in this year’s GOP presidential caucuses in Iowa. In the early stages of the 2012 presidential campaign, the group has already stirred controversy by asking candidates to sign “The Marriage Vow,” a controversial document that included a “commitment to downsizing government” and denouncing marriage equality and pornography. Only candidates Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have signed the pledge. Bachmann and Santorum signed it before the Family Leader removed a footnote implying that black families were stronger during the period when slavery was legal in America.

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