Grant helped anti-gay marriage effort -
Published Friday, August 26, 2011 at 1:00 am / Updated at 8:55 pm
Grant helped anti-gay marriage effort

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."

State Department moves to delay Keystone XL pipeline decision
Omahan charged in fatal shooting in Benson neighborhood
Friday's attendance dips at Millard West after bathroom threat
High school slam poets don't just recite verses, 'they leave their hearts beating on the stage'
Crack ring's leaders join others in prison as a result of Operation Purple Haze
High court denies death row appeal of cult leader convicted of murder
Haze in area comes from Kansas, Oklahoma
Man taken into custody in domestic dispute
Omaha judge reprimanded for intervening in peer attorney's DUI case
Intoxicated man with pellet gun climbs billboard's scaffold; is arrested
Police seek public's help in finding an armed man
Saturday forecast opens window for gardening; Easter egg hunts look iffy on Sunday
Database: How much did Medicare pay your doctor?
Last day of 2014 Legislature: Praise, passage of a last few bills and more on mountain lions
New public employee pay data: Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy Counties, plus utilities
A voice of experience: Ex-gang member helps lead fight against Omaha violence
Church is pressing its case for old Temple Israel site
OPPD board holding public forum, open house May 7
The thrill of the skill: Omaha hosts statewide contest for students of the trades
A recap of what got done — and what didn't — in the 2014 legislative session
When judge asks, Nikko Jenkins says ‘I killed them’
Nancy's Almanac, April 17, 2014: Trees save money
'The war is not over,' Chambers says, but legislative session about is
PAC funded by Senate candidate Ben Sasse's great-uncle releases Shane Osborn attack ad
Teen killed at Gallagher Park was shot in head as he sat in SUV, friend who was wounded says
< >
Breaking Brad: Stuck in a claw machine? You get no Easter candy
I know of one kid in Lincoln who will be receiving a lump of coal from the Easter Bunny, just as soon as he's extricated from that bowling alley claw machine.
Breaking Brad: Mountain lion season's over, but the bunny's fair game!
Thursday was the last day of a Nebraska Legislature session. Before leaving town, legislators passed a bill to hold a lottery to hunt the Easter Bunny.
Breaking Brad: At least my kid never got stuck inside a claw machine
We need a new rule in Lincoln. If your kid is discovered inside the claw machine at a bowling alley, you are forever barred from being nominated for "Mother of the Year."
Breaking Brad: How many MECA board members can we put in a luxury suite?
As a stunt at the Blue Man Group show, MECA board members are going to see how many people they can stuff into one luxury suite.
Kelly: Creighton's McDermotts put good faces on an Omaha tradition
A comical roast Wednesday night in Omaha brought fans of Creighton basketball laughter by the bucketful. This time it was McJokes, not McBuckets, that entertained the Bluejay crowd.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
The Jaipur in Rockbrook Village
Half Off Fine Indian Cuisine & Drinks! $15 for Dinner, or $7 for Lunch
Buy Now
< >
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »