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Questions about Iowa Family Leader division’s use of taxpayer funds remain

The Iowa Family Policy Center, a division of The Family Leader, did not comply with federal-grant protocol when it relinquished the last year of federal funding it received for a controversial marriage-counseling program, according to documents obtained by The Independent under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

At the center of the controversy is the recent revelation that the Iowa Family Policy Center (IFPC) might have used taxpayer dollars to wage a campaign against same-sex marriage in the state.

Shorty after The Iowa Independent began reporting on IFPC’s Marriage Matters program, IFPC announced they had agreed in September 2009 to stop accepting money from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) for the counseling operation. Marriage Matters was funded by federal government dollars while the organization carried out a campaign to oust three state Supreme Court judges whose 2009 ruling legalized civil marriage for Iowa gays and lesbians.

But IFPC did not officially relinquish the grant funding until nearly a year later, The Iowa Independent reported.

In a letter dated Aug. 3, 2010, HHS’s Administration for Children and Families (ACF) asked IFPC President Chuck Hurley to submit a formal relinquishment letter explaining the group’s reasoning for rejecting the funds. That was the first step in the process. The next step in the process, as ACF Grants Management Specialist Abangolee J. Caulcrick explained in that initial letter, would be for IFPC to submit a final financial status report and a final progress report.

As to the reason for rejecting additional government money, on Aug. 10, 2010, Hurley wrote:

“While the process has been invigorating, we believe the 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.”

After filing a records request with ACF, The Independent discovered that IFPC never filed the required documentation. On Dec. 30, 2010, Caulcrick sent Hurley a letter stating:

“I am contacting you for the last time to submit your final financial status report and program progress report along with your property inventory and disposition statement. If I do not receive these reports on or before January 7, 2011, I will be left with no alternative but to administratively closeout your grant.”

However, according to the ACF FOIA office, IFPC’s grant file is still open, because that documentation was never received.

The ACF communications department was not forthcoming with further information about the closeout process and would not answer questions as to whether IFPC violated federal policy by not submitting the requested reports.

Even less forthcoming was The Family Leader, which declined to explain why it has not submitted financial documents for the final year that it received funding.

“We have made a decision as an organization not to grant any more interviews on that subject,” Family Leader spokesperson Julie Summa told The Independent, referring to the Healthy Marriage grant. “The public records are [available].”

Unanswered questions

While neither ACF nor The Family Leader will answer questions about the process, larger ethical questions remain concerning the funding of the grant itself.

In her explanation as to why IFPC will not comment on the Healthy Marriage grant, Summa referenced the Associated Press article that sparked outrage among LGBT-rights groups in Iowa because it showed a funding overlap for the taxpayer-funded program and the political anti-same-sex-marriage campaign. Adding to the ire was the revelation gay and lesbian couples were shut out of the marriage-counseling program. LGBT-advocacy group One Iowa launched a petition asking The Family Leader to return the $2.2 million dollars it received in grant funding back to America’s taxpayers.

In a phone interview, University of Iowa Professor Brad Richardson, who was paid to evaluate IFPC’s grant, said he had never heard of an organization turning down a full year’s worth of federal funding for a successful program.

“I’ve never seen anybody turn back money, so they must have had a good reason,” Richardson said.

As a third-party evaluator, Richardson — who also evaluated IFPC’s federally-funded Compassion Capital Fund demonstration grant projects in 2004 and 2005 – reviewed the organization’s proposal and achievements. Richardson’s semiannual evaluation report from October 2010, obtained by The Independent, reflects progress: IFPC met each of its goals by about 25 percent, and data from the Iowa health department shows that as of 2005, the state’s divorce rate has been on a steady decline.

What concerned Richardson in the initial proposal, however, was the fact that gay and lesbian couples were explicitly written out of the project.

“Early on in the project, as I was looking at the materials, [I noticed] the materials were implying couples [they would] be serving were male and female,” Richardson said. “I mentioned, ‘What about if they are not male and female?’ They told me that it wasn’t a target population they were focusing on.”

“I don’t know what would happen today,” Richardson continued, referring to fact that in 2009, same-sex marriage was legalized. “Because you’d be excluding people that were legally married. It would be a bigger issue today.”

The question of funding overlap comes from the fact that, according to the AP, IFPC spent $192,000 of the $550,000 it received in 2009 on salaries and employee benefits for five employees, including Hurley. The AP revealed that in April, when the news organization asked Marriage Matters operations manager Chris Nitzschke which IFPC employees were paid through the grant, Nitzschke only mentioned IFPC Vice President Mike Hartwig was paid; he did not mention more than half of his own salary came from the grant.

Additionally, the Healthy Marriage grant money was spent on telephone, Internet and rent for the same building out of which IFPC was operating its campaign to overturn the gay-marriage Supreme Court ruling.

Political connections

One of the paid employees, Matt Reisetter — who was running the Northeast Iowa Marriage Alliance (NIMA) for the Marriage Matters program and is now the Family Leader’s director of development — was running for state political office and working for a presidential candidate at the same time.

In 2006, Reisetter, a Republican, ran a failed bid for Iowa House District 19 seat against the Democratic incumbent Bob Kressig. And in late 2007, he was hired by then-GOP presidential candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Reiseitter’s job as director of coalitions was essentially to help pastors figure out how much political activity they could engage in without violating the law.

Huckabee was publicly endorsed by Hurley.

In IFPC’s grant project abstract, obtained by The Independent, IFPC proposed to pay Reisetter for 1,140 hours of work at a rate of $22 an hour, or $25,080. As part of the proposal, $19,100 of Reisetter’s salary would be paid by federal money; the rest would be matched by NIMA funds.

As part of the Healthy Marriage grant conditions, IFPC was required to sign a form “Assurances – Non-Construction Programs” (PDF) drafted by the Office of Management and Budget, which stipulates grant recipients “will comply, as applicable, with provisions of the federal Hatch Act (5 U.S.C. § 1501 and 7324-7328) which limit the political activities of employees whose principal employment activities are funded in whole or in part with Federal funds.”

Richardson said it was not his job to evaluate whether or not there was any improper usage of the federal grant money received by IFPC. He said that would likely be the job of the operations manager, who is not talking.

Randall Wilson, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Iowa, which is investigating how the IFPC spent the Healthy Marriage federal funds, told TAI the ACLU is trying to determine whether taxpayer funding for this project was diverted as a subsidy for political activity.

“One does not want federal money to be funding religious organizations to be engaging in political activity,” Wilson said.

The investigation, however, is stalled because the ACF has not fulfilled the ACLU’s FOIA request filed months ago.

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