IOWA CITY (AP) — Federal grant money awarded to a social conservative group to provide marriage counseling also helped pay some of its operational expenses while it was leading an anti-gay marriage campaign, according to grant documents obtained by the Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act.
The $2.2 million received by the Iowa Family Policy Center between 2006 and 2010 helped hundreds of Iowans receive education and counseling, according to the documents. But it also paid for part of the salaries of five employees, rent, telephone, Internet and other expenses while the group was fighting legalized gay marriage in Iowa.
A University of Iowa researcher who was a consultant on the grant also told AP the group declined to provide same-sex couples education and counseling with the money.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services officials approved the grant budget, and there's no indication the costs run afoul of federal guidelines. Still, critics said the grant was potentially troubling because it was involved in a high-profile effort to respond to the Iowa Supreme Court's 2009 ruling legalizing gay marriage at the time, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa is investigating. A public backlash led Iowa voters to oust three justices last year.
The Iowa Family Policy Center and its political and advocacy arms, all housed in the same office as its marriage program, were outspoken on the issue. The center first called for blocking the ruling from taking effect and then called on lawmakers to amend Iowa's constitution to ban same-sex marriage.
The candidate the group supported in the Republican race for governor last year, Bob Vander Plaats, vowed to sign an executive order overturning the ruling and criticized Terry Branstad for not being strong enough on the issue. After Vander Plaats lost to Branstad in the primary, he became the face of the push to oust the justices and worked with the group to organize the campaign.
The group, now known as the Family Leader and a force in this year's Republican presidential caucuses in Iowa, turned down the fifth year of the grant, worth $550,000. Liberals and conservatives alike had questioned the grant, but group leaders say they decided voluntarily to be financed by donations.
The Family Leader has received national attention recently for asking Republican candidates to sign a pledge to be faithful to their spouses and denounce same-sex marriage rights and pornography.
HHS documents describe the extent to which tax dollars helped fund the Family Policy Center, which is greater than a spokesman previously acknowledged. In the final grant year, which 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.
"We went out and saved hundreds of marriages. ... We knew what we could and couldn't do with federal money, we followed it scrupulously and our auditors were looking over our shoulders, which is a good thing," Hurley said. "They sliced and diced and made sure that all of our apportionment for all of our entities was done according to the grant requirements."
When asked in April, Nitzschke said the grant paid for Hartwig's salary but didn't mention the others, including that more than half his own salary came from the grant.
Jeff Angelo, a former state senator who founded Iowa Republicans for Freedom, which supports same-sex marriage, said he believes at least some tax money was used to further a political cause.
"If you are putting money to support offices, phone and Internet services and the salary of someone whose main job is partisan political work, you can't just argue in a very nebulous way this money was used to save marriages," he said. "This doesn't pass the test."
The group used $10,000 in federal funds every year to pay part of the rent for its office in a strip mall in suburban Des Moines, which was owned by a company partly controlled by Harry Elder, one of its board members at the time. Elder declined to comment; Hurley said the arrangement was appropriate.
The group also used $7,000 for telephone and Internet services, $5,000 for office supplies and more than $20,000 for other program support, records show. The group also spent more than $250,000 to hire contractors, including groups to recruit and train mentor couples.
In all, the group reported serving more than 6,000 individuals during the four years of the grant. Brad Richardson, a University of Iowa school of social work researcher paid to evaluate the grant, said grant workers collected data from hundreds of couples who received counseling and they showed positive changes in their agreement with their spouses afterward. He noted that several couples also shared stories about how the counseling helped save or improved their marriages.
Richardson said he disagreed with the group's decision to shut out gay and lesbian couples, saying he pushed for them to be included when he was designing the assessment to give participants sometime after the grant was awarded in 2006.
"I don't think I got a real positive response," he said. "I think their response was, 'We just don't serve that many of those folks' or something like that."
Hurley said that he was not aware of Richardson's concerns but that the group was simply complying with the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex couples. Because it was federal, not state, grant money, he said the group couldn't have served same-sex couples even after the 2009 decision legalizing gay marriage in Iowa.
Randall Wilson, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said it's important to analyze how the money was used since it is an example of former President George W. Bush's faith-based initiative, which helped religious groups receive government funding. His group has requested additional documents about the grant hoping to learn whether the money was used appropriately.
"The other thing is, during this grant time the group was working to promote an agenda that included their involvement in politics in terms of trying to defeat the retention of three Iowa Supreme Court justices," he said. "It becomes concerning, too, when federal money subsidizes or potentially could have been used to subsidize a political effort."