Friday, October 23, 2009

News Alert: Uncovering secrets in Maine

Uncovering secrets in Maine
Anti-gay group rolls out scare tactics as referendum nears

By Danielle Truszkovsky

ON OCT. 1, the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics & Election Practices met to determine if a complaint filed by Fred Karger of Californians Against Hate against the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) would be investigated. In his complaint, Karger claimed that NOM violated campaign reporting requirements and that the group was actively participating in money laundering. Despite the evidence he submitted, which included NOM emails pertaining to fundraising specifically for Maine while alluding to donor anonymity, the commission's staff recommended that no investigation be conducted due to lack of supporting evidence.

NOM had failed to disclose even its required IRS 990 filings to the public so it is not surprising that the evidence Karger possessed was limited. In my last Blade column published Sept. 18 entitled, "Follow the money: Why the federal gov't must investigate NOM's financial practices," I detailed how the group has habitually hidden and revised its records. Uncovering NOM's secrets has been the focus of my work for many months and as the title of my last column implies, I do believe an investigation into the group is warranted.

So I flew to Maine specifically to attend this hearing but due to circumstances beyond my control, I missed the first portion of the proceedings. I arrived just in time to hear the testimony of NOM Executive Director, Brian Brown, and a member of his legal team, Barry Bostrom.

Both Bostrom and Brown lavished praise on the staff and the Commission for their professionalism. They insinuated that the entire proceeding was a waste of everyone's time and it was obvious that Brown had thought he had already won. At that point, most of us in the audience believed NOM had won as well -- it is rare that a Commission overrules a staff recommendation.

Then Brown made an egregious error, stating: "Mr. Karger refers to the fact that we refused to disclose our financial records ... this is simply not the case. We have given our 990s to journalists. They are now publicly available -- they're available on our web site and we did that because we got so many calls and people showing up at the office asking for them that it became quite difficult to work."

Apparently, Brown had no idea I had entered the room. If he had, perhaps he would have reconsidered that statement because I am one of only two journalists who showed up at NOM's office requesting 990s -- I know this because Brown told me so in person when I interviewed him on Sept. 1. (The other was the Blade's Lou Chibbaro Jr.)

IRS regulations require charities to release the documents within 24 hours of an in-person request. Brown did not release the documents to me -- ever. And his reference to the documents "now [being] publicly available" was laughable because popular blogger ChinoBlanco revealed that NOM had secretly released the 990s on the web within days of the Maine hearing, presumably to feign compliance in front of the Commission.

Brown went on to attack Karger's efforts and made false claims against the gay civil rights movement in general. Although it was never my intention to speak at this hearing, by the time Brown was finished, I simply couldn't remain silent and allow his false statements to go uncontested.

ALTHOUGH THE COMMISSION does not allow public questioning of witnesses, they did grant me a few moments to speak. Here's what I said:

"My name is Danielle Truszkovsky ... I'm a political columnist ... one of the journalists who have visited the NOM offices to request the 990s. It's been an ongoing process attempting to obtain the records. I know that the group Californians Against Hate sent an initial request in March and (NOM) had 30 days to release the records, which they did not do and as far as I know, they have still not sent the records to Californians Against Hate.

"I also personally visited their 'national headquarters' in Princeton three times to make an in-person request and no one was ever available at that office -- it's basically a barren, empty space. I did speak with Brian [Brown] at his Washington, D.C., office and they did not have the returns available at that point."
I went on to explain that NOM has also amended its 2007 return numerous times even though it is extremely rare for charitable organizations to do so. I quoted an e-mail ...
from NOM to its supporters in which the group "takes credit" for the signature gathering and fundraising efforts in Maine. This is a direct violation of the campaign laws in Maine that require groups that fund these efforts to register as PACs (Political Action Committees) or BQCs (Ballot Questioning Committees). My testimony ended with, "Now, I ask, how is it possible that this group [NOM] is the largest contributor to Stand for Marriage Maine at $160,000 but they are the only one who is not registered as a PAC or BQC?"

BROWN AND BOSTROM were then given the opportunity to speak again and when the pair finished, the Commission had some very interesting questions about NOM's activities and attempts to conceal its records from the public. Brown admitted that NOM released its 990s on the web only within the past week. It was also revealed that after NOM donated its initial $160,000, the group has since poured hundreds of thousands more into Maine. As they scrambled to defend their activity in Maine, their story seemed to simply fall apart.
Upon completion of the discussion, the Commission voted 3-2 to conduct an investigation into the National Organization for Marriage.

Prior to the hearing, Brian Brown submitted a sworn affidavit, which states, "NOM does not accept donations designated for the Maine referendum" and "NOM has not made expenditures exceeding $5,000 for the purpose of initiating or promoting the people's veto referendum in Maine, other than by contribution to Stand for Marriage Maine PAC." If it is determined that NOM did violate any of the points listed in the affidavit, Brown could face perjury charges.

It will be interesting to see what developments occur next. It is safe to assume that NOM will do everything in its financial power to prevent its records from being examined. In California, NOM lodged a lawsuit against the secretary of state, the attorney general and the five commissioners of the California Fair Political Practices Commission for allowing an investigation into the group. NOM has also initiated litigation in California that attempts to remove all disclosure of contributors to political initiatives and campaigns. Rather than comply with state and federal regulations, it seems NOM and its backers prefer to use their massive war chest to conceal records and intimidate the officials who seek to protect the citizens they represent. Will NOM resort to the same desperate scare-tactics in Maine?

On Oct. 1, the Maine Commission on Ethics & Governmental Practices made a courageous decision to stand up for fairness. This, however, is just one small victory. On Nov. 3, the citizens of Maine will decide if their gay and straight neighbors deserve the same civil rights. For more information on protecting equality in Maine, visit the No on 1 campaign