AUGUSTA –– Maine’s ethics commission voted unanimously Wednesday to impose a $50,250 fine on the nation’s leading organization opposing gay marriage, in a ruling that could affect the way nonprofit organizations attempt to influence Maine elections.
The vote followed an investigation in which the staff of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices found that the National Organization for Marriage concealed its operations and donors during its successful bid to overturn Maine’s same-sex marriage law in 2009.
The vote means that the state will require the organization to register as a ballot question committee and disclose its donors from the 2009 campaign.
The organization’s executives, two of whom attended the hearing, vowed to appeal the ruling and protect the anonymity of the donors. John Eastman, the organization’s attorney and board chairman, said that revealing the donors’ names would put them at risk of threats and harassment while hindering the organization’s ability to raise money.
The commission will finalize its decision during its next meeting, in June. The National Organization for Marriage will then have 30 days to appeal the decision to Superior Court.
A pending appeal means that more time is likely to pass before the donors to the 2009 campaign are publicly identified. Chris Plante, the national organization’s regional director, told the Portland Press Herald last week that the group will “do whatever it takes to defend this and protect our donors’ anonymity.”
In 2009, NOM poured more than $2 million into the $3 million referendum campaign to overturn the law that legislators passed and Gov. John Baldacci signed. The law never took effect.
Brian Brown, the group’s executive director, was an operating officer of Stand for Marriage Maine, the Maine-based ballot question committee that registered with the state. Before their vote Wednesday, ethics commission members argued that Brown’s dual role allowed the organization to shield its donors and skirt Maine’s donor disclosure law.
The ethics investigation cited bank statements and campaign literature to show that the organization used its nonprofit status to draw donations earmarked for the Maine referendum – a violation of Maine election law.
Eastman said the investigation did not prove that contributions were earmarked for the Maine referendum, so the donors’ identities are protected by federal laws governing nonprofit “social welfare” organizations. Such laws have been used by political nonprofits of all stripes to conceal their funding sources and spending in state and federal elections.
Michael Healy, a member of the five-member ethics commission, said Eastman’s arguments didn’t make sense. He said Brown’s dual role effectively gave him control over the Maine ballot committee.
“Your organization gave two-thirds of the (campaign money) to the (Maine) committee,” he said. “I have a hard time not concluding that you didn’t control the ballot question committee.”
Ethics commission Chairman Walter McKee said that to accept the explanation would be to “accept a mockery of Maine’s election laws.”
McKee pointed to a series of donor solicitations and transactions that were obtained during the investigation. The records show that some donors gave specific amounts to the national organization’s treasury, and that on the same day, identical, or nearly identical, amounts were transferred to Stand for Marriage Maine.
McKee said it was hard to believe that the transactions were a coincidence or that the donations were not designated for Maine’s campaign. “(The explanation) strains the credibility here,” he said.
During occasionally heated exchanges, Eastman and Brown said their organization had been singled out by the commission. They argued that the Human Rights Campaign, a gay activist group, operated in the same manner during the 2009 referendum and the ballot initiative in 2012 that legalized same-sex marriage in Maine.
Eastman said the organization will file an ethics complaint against the Human Rights Campaign for its activities in those campaigns.
Fred Karger, a gay-rights activist from California, filed the complaint against the National Organization for Marriage with Maine’s ethics commission in 2009. Karger said the organization effectively laundered its donations to conceal the identity of its donors.
“NOM definitely picked the wrong state to break the law,” he said.
Karger said the ruling could assist an investigation that he filed for in Iowa in 2013. He is also considering filing a complaint in New Hampshire, where the national organization tried to repeal that state’s same-sex marriage law.
Iowa and New Hampshire are mentioned in the 37-page report by the ethics commission’s staff.
“They said there’s going to be more litigation,” Karger said of the national organization. “Bring it on, because this attorney general here is superb in taking on NOM all the way (through the court system).”
Karger was referring to two lawsuits that the organization brought against the ethics commission. The litigation delayed the investigation but provided access to key tax and banking documents that were incorporated into the ethics commission’s staff report, which was made public last week.
The staff recommended fines for failure to register properly as a ballot committee and failure to file campaign finance reports. It also recommended directing the organization to register as a committee and file campaign finance reports, five years after the fact, for about $2 million in contributions.
Jonathan Wayne, the commission’s executive director, said the staff learned the identities of the organization’s donors through its investigation and through discovery requests the state submitted when the organization filed a federal lawsuit in October 2009. Wayne indicated Wednesday that the decision and fine could deter other third-party and nonprofit groups from flouting Maine’s disclosure law.
The Press Herald requested the names of the donors last week through a Freedom of Access Act request. The ethics commission denied the request, saying the information is shielded as sensitive financial information. The information will become public if the national organization complies with the commission’s ruling or if the ruling is upheld on appeal.
The proposed $50,250 fine would be nearly twice the largest previous ethics penalty against a state political action committee. In 2011, the commission fined the Republican State Leadership Committee $26,000 for violating the state’s campaign disclosure law.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: