Question 1 donations questioned

Posted Oct. 01, 2009, at 8:45 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A state ethics commission plans to investigate claims that groups working to repeal Maine’s gay marriage law violated campaign finance laws in order to hide the identities of donors.

The two organizations targeted by the investigation — Stand for Marriage Maine and the National Organization for Marriage — staunchly defended their practices and dismissed the complaint as a last-minute smear campaign.

Members of the Maine Ethics Commission voted 3-2 on Thursday morning to delve deeper into allegations that the National Organization for Marriage purposefully skirted campaign finance laws in order to conceal the identities of donors.

The complaint, filed by the group Californians Against Hate, alleges those donations then were funneled to Stand for Marriage Maine, the organization leading the battle to repeal Maine’s same-sex marriage law.

Ethics commission staff had recommended not investigating the complaint, however the majority of the commissioners disagreed.

“We’re not just talking about a few hundred dollars here. There is a large amount of money,” commission member Walter McKee said. “It looks to me that there is something that we should look into.”

However, the investigation is not expected to be completed before the Nov. 3 vote on Question 1, which asks Mainers whether they want to repeal the state’s law allowing same-sex couples to marry.

The National Organization for Marriage, which is based in Washington, D.C., contributed $160,000 to the referendum campaign to repeal the law during the last campaign reporting period, which ended in early July. The organization since has made additional large donations, which are expected to be detailed in Stand for Marriage Maine’s next financial disclosures, due in mid-October.

Brian Brown, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage, said no campaign finance laws were violated because money was raised for a general fund to support the organization’s mission. The group did not raise money specifically for the campaign in Maine, he said.

Brown said he is looking forward to the investigation to prove that no infractions occurred, and he accused Californians Against Hate of raising unfounded allegations in part to frighten potential donors.

“This [complaint] is nothing more than an attempt to intimidate and to harass people who believe marriage is a union between a man and a woman,” Brown said after the commission’s vote.

Californians Against Hate founder Fred Karger has waged a similar fight in his home state, where the National Organization for Marriage played a crucial role in voter approval of a referendum prohibiting same-sex marriage.

Karger filed his complaint with the Maine Ethics Commission in August after seeing that the National Organization for Marriage had contributed nearly half of the money that Stand for Marriage Maine collected through early July. He accused the organization of “money laundering” by soliciting donations from opponents of same-sex marriage for the Maine campaign, all the while promising those donors their identities would remain confidential.

“They came out of nowhere to become a huge force in that [California] election and now they are leading the fight against gay marriage across the country,” Karger told the commission. “Their finances have always been a huge mystery.”

Thursday’s debate illustrates the complexity of campaign finance laws.

In Maine, individuals who contribute $50 or more to a campaign must be identified in financial reports filed with the ethics commission, which administers the state’s campaign finance laws.

Karger provided copies of e-mails and newsletters that he said show the National Organization for Marriage is circumventing those disclosure laws by raising money on behalf of the Maine campaign from groups and individuals. He also accused the organization of delaying release of its tax reports as a nonprofit.

“I just want to get to the truth,” he said.

But Brown and his attorney, Barry Bostrum, said the National Organization for Marriage does not solicit money for specific campaigns. Instead, most donors generally support the objective of the group to oppose same-sex marriage initiatives around the country. Brown also said donors whose names were eventually released in California were the targets of boycotts, harassing calls, vandalism and even death threats by gay marriage supporters.

“We’re not trying to hide these” donations, Brown said. “We know our obligations and we follow them.”

Ultimately, three commission members disagreed with the staff recommendation and voted to investigate the allegations.

“I’m concerned about the slippery slope of future creation of these entities that can circumvent the laws in this way,” said Commissioner Andre Duchette.

Mark Mutty, chairman of Stand for Marriage Maine, called the commission’s vote “an unfortunate abuse of power” and an example of the type of harassment that he says follows opponents of gay marriage. He also accused Californians Against Hate of trying to stir up controversy less than a month before the campaign.

“The complaint by Californians Against Hate — which is itself a hate group — is frivolous,” Mutty said in a statement. “The Commission’s independent professional staff has reviewed the facts and concluded that there was insufficient evidence to launch an investigation. We are certain that the investigation will come to the same conclusion.”

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