Dirty Money

Though roundly defeated in the last election, the National Organization for Marriage is still committed to blocking marriage equality. Some evidence suggests that it’s turning to harsher speech, hiding donations, and rolling back campaign disclosure laws to accomplish its goals.



At left: Brian Brown


The Case of Maine
This funding arrangement is evident in NOM’s Maine groups, in the ballot battles in both 2009 and 2012. In 2009 the state-registered political action committee Stand for Marriage Maine, with NOM’s Brian Brown listed as one of three primary fund-raisers and decision makers, received 62% of its funds, or nearly $2 million, directly from NOM. (The other big donor was the Roman Catholic diocese.) NOM’s donations arrived in extremely large lump sums, sometimes just a few days apart. For instance, NOM donated $300,000 to Stand for Marriage Maine on October 1, 2009; $300,000 on October 9; $500,000 on October 14; $100,000 on October 23; $40,000 on October 26; $160,000 on October 27; and $40,000 on October 29. When the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices began investigating these large donations that were not connected to individual names, the commission wrote, “It is illegal for a PAC to knowingly accept a contribution made by one person in the name of another person.” The allegation is that NOM wasn’t the real donor; it was listed as the donor to shield the person who first wrote the check.

Investigating that allegation, Maine’s assistant attorney general Thomas Knowlton interrogated NOM head Brian Brown under oath in 2010. According to a redacted transcript of that deposition, Knowlton asked Brown detailed and arcane questions about the structures and relevant regulations governing more than half a dozen of NOM’s state-filed and national subgroups and offshoots. Brown was able to answer precisely, easily recalling regulations and reporting rules governing each group over several years. Brown remembered how much NOM had donated to elect or unseat specific candidates in various states. He recalled whether NOM spent funds on mailings, phone calls, voter surveys, or some other purpose. Brown agreed that during the month of October 2009, NOM had raised more than $2 million — more than $1.2 million of which went to Stand for Marriage Maine. Brown was the person authorizing those transfers, both on the sending end, as NOM’s head, and on the receiving end, as Stand for Marriage Maine’s treasurer. Here’s what appeared most questionable: Knowlton noted that on October 1, NOM received a wire transfer of $300,000; later that day, NOM wired that same amount to Stand for Marriage Maine. This certainly appears as if  Brown or NOM cofounder Maggie Gallagher would call up one of its small group of donors, say that money was needed (at a time when the only major effort was in Maine), receive $300,000 or $500,000, and on the same day pass that exact sum directly through to Stand for Marriage Maine.

Knowlton asked Brown if he remembered which one of NOM’s four people in charge of “the ask” had spoken with the donors, and whether he recalled who had given the money. Knowlton didn’t ask who had given the money; Brown told The Advocate he’d made clear that he wouldn’t answer such an unconstitutional question. Rather, Knowlton asked whether Brown recalled who had given it. Brown said no. The man who recalled every detail about all the organizations under NOM’s rubric and which amounts had been expended in what races could not recall who solicited these large donations or who gave the $300,000 or $500,000 amounts in question.

When asked, Brown said he could recall campaign finance laws, rules, and regulations in detail because he has to — NOM is under such tremendous scrutiny.

“Even a minor mistake by us isn’t treated in the same way” as those of other groups, Brown said; rather, in his view, NOM is singled out and attacked for ordinary campaign behavior in a way that’s aggressively unfair. “Is NOM going to be held to a different standard, are we going to be targeted, is there going to a witch hunt, where people go after our donors and have access to [the names of those who give] private donations for unrestricted gifts, but the Human Rights Campaign and Freedom to Marry don’t have to do that? Is that the world you want to live in?”  

In an interview for this article, Brown said that no donations were ever solicited specifically for the Maine 2009 campaign. “We have regular large donations coming into NOM. We make very clear to donors that if you donate to NOM you are donating to NOM’s general treasury. We can use that money how we use it, but it is not designated for any political purpose. And so at the end of a campaign, when, you know, obviously if the Human Rights Campaign has money in its general treasury, it will use it…. At that point obviously Maine was a key fight. But we would never tell donors that they donate to us and we would then give it to a campaign. We’ve told donors the exact opposite! That if you want to give to a campaign, give it to a campaign. By supporting NOM, you give to NOM’s general work…. And that’s what Human Rights Campaign does, that’s what Freedom to Marry does.”

After the 2009 election, Maine’s Roman Catholic diocese largely stopped pouring money into the cause, citing financial difficulties — which it attributed, in part, to public dislike of its position on marriage equality. Stand for Marriage Maine went from being funded primarily by NOM to being funded only by NOM. In 2010 and 2011, Stand for Marriage Maine received, respectively, 98% and 100% of its funds from NOM, making the state group, in essence, a wholly owned subsidiary.