All Rights reserved
The Maine Ethics Commission voted 3-2 on Thursday to launch a formal investigation into the National Organization for Marriage's funding of a state ballot measure that would strip newly won marriage rights for same-sex couples.
That recommendation, issued Tuesday, concluded that there was insufficient evidence indicating that NOM or any other group supporting the repeal initiative, known as Question 1, had violated state campaign reporting laws.
California gay activist Fred Karger, founder of Californians Against Hate, requested the investigation. Karger's group had studied public records to identify businesses and individuals who supported California's Proposition 8, which passed last year and was ultimately upheld by the state's supreme court.
After conducting similar public records searches 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 Stand for Marriage Maine spokesman, declined to answer any specific questions concerning the commission's vote, and referred to a statement issued by the organization following the hearing. The statement, attributed to Stand for Marriage Maine chairman Marc Mutty, says 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," Mutty said. "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 also declined direct comment on the commission's vote. "We are not involved in any way shape or form," No on 1 spokesman Mark Sullivan said. Asked whether the investigation might nevertheless influence voters, he said, "We have nothing to do with the complaint and [we] don't have any opinion about it one way or the other."
According to the latest state campaign finance reports filed in July, Stand for Marriage Maine has raised more than $343,000. The greatest bulk of money--$160,000, or 46% of total funds--has been generated by NOM. Other major donors include the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Maine; Focus on the Family, and the Knights of Columbus.
By comparison, the key group working against the measure has raised $143,290 -- 76 percent of which has come from individuals. ($25,000 also came from the Human Rights Campaign and $10,000 from the ACLU.)
The next financial disclosure report is due October 13.
In an interview, Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the commission, said he believes the commission's directive now is to investigate NOM only. However, he said he would be consulting further with commission members in the coming weeks to get a more definitive answer.
Such investigations, Wayne said, typically take several months, and a report on its findings will likely be issued long after November 3. 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.
During Thursday's hearing, Karger told the commission that NOM has sent out at least 16 emails 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," Karger asserted.
But NOM executive director Brian Brown said his organization has followed all applicable state laws. He also rebutted claims that NOM has been delinquent in filing and making public its Internal Revenue Service forms that require the reporting of money raised and spent by tax-exempt organizations.
Those documents, known as 990 forms, are now available on NOM's website.