If it were only a matter of a fine, the National Organization for Marriage likely would have paid up a long time ago. But the Maine Ethics Commission, an independent state agency that administers Maine’s campaign finance laws, isn’t really fighting for NOM’s money. It’s after light.
Maine ethics investigators have recommended their commissioners not only fine the anti-gay-marriage organization $50,250 but also disclose who donated money to NOM to influence Maine’s 2009 same-sex marriage referendum. What you think about same-sex marriage shouldn’t matter in this debate about revealing donors, as it has little to do with gay couples and everything to do with ensuring an informed electorate.
One sentence in the investigative report sums up the point of the commission’s worthy pursuits: “Maine people deserve to know who is funding political campaigns to influence their vote.”
Ethics commission staff say NOM broke the law by not registering as a ballot question committee, which would have required it to file campaign finance reports. State law requires groups that raise more than $5,000 to influence the outcome of a ballot question to register and report their activity.
NOM took in far more than $5,000; it raised and donated $2,017,580 to political action committee Stand for Marriage Maine, representing 64 percent of the total amount spent by that PAC in support of the referendum. NOM and Stand for Marriage Maine were successful in 2009: Voters rejected a law allowing same-sex couples to marry, 300,848 to 267,828. They switched their votes in 2012, however.
The results of the commission’s investigation might seem irrelevant now, given that five years have passed — because the commission faced two lawsuits from NOM, both of which NOM lost — and the issue of same-sex marriage is largely settled in Maine. But the principle remains, and the precedent is important. It’s quite likely the state will encounter another organization seeking to hide its major donors one day, and it should be ready.
NOM argues it did not raise money for a specific activity, saying “major donor solicitations did not contain language that would have — objectively — led a donor to believe the donation would be used for the specific purpose of influencing a Maine ballot question.” The organization will likely challenge the ethics commission in court if it does levy a fine and demand donor names.
But, according to the investigative report, Nom’s executive director Brian Brown was one of the primary fundraisers for Stand for Marriage Maine and was on the PAC’s executive committee. NOM told major donors it needed their money to support the Maine referendum, even sending written strategy documents to donors and friends of the organization.
In one instance, NOM fundraising consultant Steve Linder solicited a donation from a married couple in Maine, who donated $50,000. Brown wrote a personal thank-you note to the couple, describing NOM’s planned activities in Maine. The note shows the couple already discussed having NOM commit the money to efforts in Maine.
“As you know from your discussions with Steve Linder, NOM has already contributed over $250,000.00 in the effort to project marriage in Maine,” it reads. “With supporters like you, we are confident that we will be victorious.”
The check for $50,000 was deposited into a NOM bank account Aug. 10, 2009. The next business day, Aug. 13, 2009, NOM transferred $50,000 from that account to Stand for Marriage Maine.
One could argue persuasively this donation, on its own, qualified NOM as a ballot question committee.
The point of disclosing donors is not to shame them or harm an organization’s chance of fundraising. Many donors were named on campaign finance reporting forms filed by both sides. The bottom line is Maine residents deserve to know who’s trying to influence their vote. If the commission agrees at its May 28 meeting to impose a fine and require NOM to reveal its donors, it will likely encounter continued resistance. But it’s a fight worth having.