Maine will scrutinize anti-gay groups
by Lisa Keen
The Maine campaign ethics committee voted 3-2 Thursday morning to launch a formal investigation into the funding of an anti-gay ballot initiative in that state this year.
The vote on October 1 rejected a recommendation, from the staff of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, that it not investigate the campaign funding practices of the anti-gay Stand for Marriage Maine group. Stand for Marriage Maine is spearheading support for a ballot measure in November to overturn a newly passed law to provide same-sex couples with the same rights to marriage licenses and benefits as it does to straight couples. That staff recommendation, issued September 29, said "staff does not recommend an investigation of Stand for Marriage Maine PAC or its contributors." Its largest contributor, thus far, has been the National Organization for Marriage, a group that was instrumental in funding the anti-gay Proposition 8 initiative in California.
California gay activist Fred Karger, founder of Californians Against Hate, requested the investigation. Karger's group, founded just last year, studied public records to identify businesses and individuals who contributed to the anti-gay Yes on 8 campaign in California. While doing similar work from public records in Maine, Karger told the commission he believes NOM and Stand for Marriage Maine are deliberately violating state campaign finance disclosure requirements.
Two Democrats and one Republican on the commission agreed, voting for an investigation. One Republican and one unaffiliated member, Chairman Michael Freidman of Bangor, voted against.
"I'm very pleased," said Karger in a phone interview following the vote. "The commission showed great courage today in agreeing to going ahead and launching an investigation."
Scott Fish, a spokesman for Stand for Marriage Maine, declined to answer any specific questions concerning the commission's vote, including whether he thinks it will have any impact on voters November 3. He referred a voter to a statement issued by the organization following the hearing. The statement, attributed to Marc Mutty, chairman of Stand for Marriage Maine, said the group is in compliance with state law and called the investigation an "abuse of power."
"It is yet another example of the harassment that follows supporters of traditional marriage," said Mutty. "... It is an abuse of power for the commission to have allowed itself to be used as an instrument of politics in this fashion."
The No on 1/Protect Maine Equality campaign had nothing to say about the commission vote. Spokesman Mark Sullivan repeatedly answered all questions for reaction with statements clearly meant to distance the organization from the allegations against Stand for Marriage Maine and its supporters.
"We are not involved in any way shape or form," said Sullivan. Asked whether the investigation might nevertheless influence voters, he said only, "We have nothing to do with the complaint and don't have any opinion about it one way or the other."
No on 1 and Stand for Marriage both issued statements early in the campaign promising to conduct polite, respectful, and honest campaigns.
Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the commission, said he believes the commission's directive now is to investigate only NOM; however, he said he would be consulting further with commission members in the coming weeks to get a more definitive answer.
Such investigations, said Wayne, typically take several months and, therefore, a report on its findings will likely be issued long after the voting takes place. If the group or groups investigated are found to be in violation of state campaign finance disclosure laws, he said, the commission can either issue a statement announcing the violation or assess civil penalties.
Karger said that, because of the commission's vote, the commission now has subpoena power, if needed, to obtain records from the organizations backing Question 1.
During Thursday's hearing, Karger told the commission that NOM has sent out at least 16 e-mails that "mention Maine and directly ask for money." He said the group also tells contributors that their identities will be kept private.
"They're definitely trying to go around the Maine election law," said Karger.
But Brian Brown, head of NOM, said his organization knows and follows state law closely. He also rebutted claims that NOM has been delinquent in filing and making public its 990 forms – Internal Revenue Service forms that require the reporting of money raised and spent by tax-exempt organizations. The organization's 990 forms are now available on NOM's Web site.
During the hearing, which was streamed live on the commission's Web site, commission chairman Michael Friedman, who has no political party affiliation, said national political party committees frequently contribute large sums of money to campaigns in Maine without disclosing individual donor names. He said he did not believe Karger presented sufficient evidence to suggest that NOM or Stand for Marriage Maine were doing anything different from that.
But commission member Andre Duchette, a Democrat, said he was "troubled by the slippery slope where these entities can kind of circumvent the true intent of what our laws seek to uncover."
According to state campaign finance reports filed thus far, Stand for Marriage Maine has raised more than $343,000, only $400 of which came from individuals. The greatest bulk of money – $160,000 (47 percent) – has come from NOM. Another $152,000 (44 percent) has come from the Roman Catholic Church and $31,000 from the state chapter of Focus on the Family.
By comparison, the key group working against the referendum – No on 1, Protect Maine Equality – has raised $143,290, 76 percent of which ($108,290) has come from individuals. In terms of group donations, as of August, Equality California had contributed $65,000 (including $40,000 raised from individuals); $25,000 came from the Human Rights Campaign; and $10,000 from the ACLU. The next financial disclosure report is due October 13.