Commission: Marriage group probe to go on

Posted June 24, 2010, at 10:10 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Ethics Commission on Thursday rejected the National Organization for Marriage’s latest attempt to block an investigation of the group, adding yet another legal twist to a case that has been going since last October.

The four members of the Ethics Commission voted unanimously to dismiss NOM’s argument that the commission lacked the authority to conduct an investigation into whether the organization should have registered as a “ballot question committee.”

“I have no doubt as soon as we make a decision that this, like our other decisions, will be appealed to Superior Court,” said commission chairman Walter McKee.

NOM bankrolled most of last year’s successful campaign to overturn Maine’s same-sex marriage law, funneling more than $1.9 million to the political action committee Stand for Marriage Maine.

But NOM has been locked in regulatory and court battles with the Ethics Commission since the fall over whether the organization should be subject to Maine’s campaign finance laws. Requiring NOM to register as a ballot question committee could force the organization to disclose the identity of contributors.

NOM representatives have argued that donations were to support the organization’s national fight against same-sex marriage, not to the Maine campaign in particular. But critics contend that NOM solicited donations specifically for the November 2009 vote in Maine and is merely trying to hide from the public the identities of its contributors.

In the latest skirmish, NOM argued that the Ethics Commission lacked the legal means to conduct an investigation because the Maine statute authorizing investigations does not specifically include “ballot question committees.”

NOM’s attorney, Barry Bostrum, also repeated the organization’s claims that such an investigation could have a chilling effect on potential donors who would be reticent to contribute out of fear of possible backlash or retribution if their names became public.

The commissioners disagreed, however, and quickly dismissed NOM’s motion after a brief presentation by commission staff and a representative from the Attorney General’s Office.

McKee questioned why, if this was such a compelling issue to NOM, the organization didn’t raise it months ago.

Earlier this month, a federal appeals court in Boston ordered NOM to turn over documents about its donors and fundraising efforts to the state as part of the Ethics Commission’s investigation.

Donor information will remain confidential, however, until the commission determines whether NOM should have registered as a ballot question committee. Any organization that receives or spends $5,000 or more on a ballot question is required to register in Maine as a ballot question committee.

The campaign to force NOM to disclose its donor lists both here in Maine and in other states has been spearheaded by Fred Karger with the organization Californians Against Hate. In August 2009, Karger filed the initial complaint that led to the Ethics Commission’s decision to investigate NOM.

On Thursday, Karger continued his assault on NOM, accusing the organization of attempting to bully states in order to protect what he called “mega-donors.”

“They shouldn’t have anything to hide,” Karger told the commission. “Why are they going through all of this … to protect their donors? Who are they trying to protect?”

There were no representatives from NOM present at the Ethics Commission hearing, and Bostrum could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.

But in past statements and legal arguments, NOM representatives have stated that the organization was not required to file as a ballot question committee because it did not collect donations specifically for the Maine campaign against same-sex marriage.

They have also argued that Maine’s campaign finance disclosure laws could have a chilling effect on political free speech rights, an argument that the federal appeals court rejected earlier this month.

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