COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It is not a registered nonprofit, though it bears a nonprofit's Web identity. It has no board of directors, no campaign finance filing history, and no paperwork on file with the IRS or the Federal Elections Commission.
So who is LetOhioVote.org, the mysterious group that filed a lawsuit and successfully challenged Gov. Ted Strickland's plan to expand gambling in Ohio?
Records reviewed by The Associated Press show that mostly conservative Christian groups signed on to the lawsuit over Strickland's plan to put lottery-run slots at seven Ohio horse racing tracks. Strickland wanted the revenue to plug an $850 million budget hole.
Special: Get Sarah Palin’s New Book – Incredible FREE Offer -- Click Here Now.
But the Ohio Supreme Court sidelined the plan when it said opponents can try to put the measure to a popular vote.
LetOhioVote.org has until Dec. 18 to collect signatures for a May referendum on the slots proposal.
On paper, just three people make up LetOhioVote.org: David Hansen, former president of The Buckeye Institute, a conservative public policy thinktank; Tom Brinkman, a former Republican state lawmaker from Cincinnati; and Gene Pierce, a communications consultant.
Pierce, the group's treasurer, worked for Ken Blackwell, a Republican and former secretary of state who faced Strickland in the 2006 gubernatorial race.
There are other hints of Blackwell around the group.
Carlo LoParo, formerly Blackwell's trusted spokesman, is doing public relations for LetOhioVote.org, and Norman Cummings, a longtime Blackwell political adviser, registered the group's Web site, according to registration records.
Blackwell also has a long association with the Buckeye Institute, where Hansen formerly worked.
David Langdon, LetOhioVote.org's first lawyer, has provided regular legal counsel to Blackwell on such issues as his effort to cap state spending in 2006.
Both LoParo and Pierce insisted that Blackwell has no role in the group.
But Blackwell and many of the conservative political organizations fighting the slots proposal share a political philosophy and swing in the same circles.
Few are specifically anti-gambling. Their causes, records show, include promoting abstinence-only education, fighting abortion and pornography, and spreading Christian values.
Among other conservative groups that signed onto LetOhioVote.org's slots lawsuit were: Cincinnati-based Citizens for Community Values, Family First PAC, the conservative Eagle Forum and the Ohio arms of the National Government Prayer Alliance, the National Christian Schools Association and the Constitution Party.
R. Edgar Bonniwell, director of the Church Coalition for Decency, a lawsuit participant, is a member, like Blackwell, of the Arlington Group. The elite group began meeting periodically in Washington during the Bush administration to help set a national conservative agenda.
Philip Burress, who leads Citizens for Community Values, is also part of the Arlington Group.
Besides anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, however, none of the groups has deep enough pockets to underwrite the $2.5 million that LetOhioVote.org needs to gather signatures and mount its referendum campaign, not to mention the cost of legal services.
Schlafly's group has about $5.5 million on hand, nonprofit filings show. All the other groups combined have only about $750,000 on hand, according to calculations by the AP off the entities' most recent business and tax filings. Two of the groups were in the red the last time they reported to the government.
The question of who's paying also perplexed lawyers for the state, who asked the high court to let them probe into LetOhioVote.org's finances in discovery. All the justices but one said no.
In his dissent, Justice Paul Pfeifer chastised fellow justices for denying the state the chance to identify the effort's benefactors. (One affidavit submitted by the state, then rejected, suggested gambling giant Penn National had promised to pay for the signature gathering. Penn, which backed a successful casino issue in Ohio this fall, has denied the accusation.)
"If this state is to become a gambling center, we should look with caution at Nevada's long history of lack of transparency in the identity of the true parties behind the development of the gambling industry," Pfeifer wrote. "We should determine that from the outset, the truth will be told in Ohio."
LoParo said Arno Political Consultants has been hired to collect signatures, which must be turned in by Dec. 18 to stop slots from going forward.
Arno has a history with Citizens for Community Values. CCV paid the group nearly $260,000 in 2006 and 2007 for ballot issue help, records show.
Pierce said LetOhioVote.org will report its income and spending at the appropriate time.
"The lawyers are lawyers and they'll make sure we follow all the laws," he said.
© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.