Thursday, October 8, 2009

State commission to investigate gay marriage repeal backer

By Lorie Costigan, Times Record Bureau

Friday, October 2, 2009 2:05 PM EDT

AUGUSTA — The Commission on Governmental Ethics and Elections Practices voted 3-2 Thursday to launch an investigation of the Stand for Marriage Maine Political Action Committee’s primary funder, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). Both are working for a Nov. 3 people’s veto of a same-sex marriage law the Legislature passed and Gov. John Baldacci signed this spring.

A referendum to repeal that law — initiated by a petition drive — will appear as Question 1 on the Nov. 3 state ballot.

The commission’s decision reversed staff recommendations and followed nearly 40 minutes of conflicting assertions by Fred Karger, executive director of Californians Against Hate; Barry Bostrom and Brian Brown, of the National Organization for Marriage; and Danielle Truszkovsky, a freelance journalist from Florida.

Karger asserted that NOM was attempting to circumvent Maine election law by obscuring the names of its donors. He submitted dozens of documents dating to Aug. 13 and brought additional material to Thursday’s commission meeting.

Brown, NOM’s executive director, and his attorney, Bostrom, called Karger’s requests nothing more than attempts to identify those opposed to same-sex marriage as targets for future hate crimes. Each reiterated NOM’s compliance with Maine election law, explaining NOM does not solicit donations for work in specific states and instead conducts more generalized fundraising drives to support causes through its general treasury.

Of its effort to protect donor identities, Truszkovsky indicated NOM failed to disclose basic nonprofit financial statements, an Internal Revenue Service 990, and had filed amendments to the 990 three times. She told commissioners less than 1 percent of nonprofit organizations amend the disclosure one time, indicating three amendments in one reporting period was highly unusual.
Brown and Bostrom said the forms are now available on NOM’s Web site,, in part because repeated requests for the public documents had interfered with staff work.
It was Karger’s documents, however, that piqued the interest of Commissioner Walter McKee, who seized on newsletters and other material specifically citing NOM’s interest in preserving traditional unions in Maine.

McKee seemed particularly incensed by one newsletter, where more than half the content was dedicated to funding efforts in Maine.

Bostrom responded that NOM’s e-mail newsletters solicited funds to “cover the costs of sending out e-mail newsletters.” Because NOM did not receive more than $5,000 from the newsletters, Bostrom said Maine law does not require NOM to register in the state as a political action committee. He also refuted arguments that NOM would be required to register as a ballot question initiative committee under Maine law.

This is not Karger’s first attempt to challenge supporters of same-sex marriage repeal initiatives. He asked the California Fair Political Practices Commission to investigate the connection between NOM and the Church of Latter Day Saints and its purported donations to Proposition 8, the 2007 measure that repealed same-sex marriage in California.

Brown told commissioners the Californian commission had not issued a finding of wrongdoing against NOM, which raised $1.8 million in less than two years in support of a California PAC supporting Proposition 8. Brown further asserted Karger’s efforts were merely to expose the names of those who consider marriage a union between one man and one woman.

Maine’s referendum has earned national interest, a point reiterated by those speaking before the commission Thursday. Karger traveled from California; Bostrom traveled from Indiana; Brown from New Jersey; and, Truszkovsky from Florida.

No one from Maine spoke in favor of or in opposition to the request to investigate National Organization for Marriage.

The proximity of the vote did not weigh on commissioners, who urged staff to review allegations given what one commissioner called the “slippery slope” of groups attempting to circumvent Maine election law.

Of the $343,689 in donations reported by Stand for Marriage Maine PAC as of June 2009, Karger wrote that religious organizations and James Dobson’s Focus on the Family fund donated all but $400 of the total raised.

He alleges the amount of donations to NOM, and the organization’s mission, makes NOM subject to Maine’s election laws.

McKee, of Hallowell, was initially inclined to follow staff recommendations, yet was persuaded by Karger’s arguments.

“There is a large amount of money in this campaign that concerns me, and I have to say authorizing investigations in circumstances like this is appropriate,” McKee said.

“I am troubled by the slippery slope when entities can circumvent the intent of what our laws seek to cover,” Commissioner Andre Duchette of Brunswick said. “I do think an investigation is warranted.”

Outgoing commission chairman Michael Friedman of Bangor disagreed, saying the pattern of national money flowing to Maine elections was the norm, not the exception. He urged commissioners to review statutes.

Commissioner Edward Youngblood of Bangor also voiced opposition. “There is no reason to get involved in a time-consuming investigation,” he said.

Commissioner Francis Marsano of Belfast said the commission needs to focus on the intent of the law.

“Time is not of the essence,” Marsano said, adding commission staff could not be expected to complete the investigation by the Nov. 3 election.

“This investigation should be done in a way that will produce the kinds of results Commissioner McKee was proposing,” he said.

McKee and Duchette, both Democrats, and Marsano, a Republican, voted to order the investigation. Republican Youngblood, and Friedman, who is not enrolled in a political party, opposed.

Marc Mutty, chairman of Stand for Marriage Maine, released a statement blasting the decision. “Stand for Marriage Maine is in complete compliance with Maine campaign disclosure laws,” he wrote. “The decision today by the Maine Ethics Commission to open an inquiry based on frivolous allegations concerning the fundraising procedures of one of our allies, the National Organization for Marriage, is an unfortunate abuse of power. It is yet another example of the harassment that follows supporters of traditional marriage. The split 3-2 vote overruled the independent professional recommendation of the commission staff that an investigation was not warranted. Instead, a bare majority of commissioners agreed with a California-based hate group that exists for the sole purpose of harassing marriage supporters ..."

If California’s investigation is any indication, Maine’s probe will carry on well past Election Day. Reached for comment Thursday, Roman Porter, executive director of CFPP, said the California investigation spurred by Karger’s complaint is in its 11th month. Porter was unwilling to provide a timeline of when the investigation might end.Jonathan Wayne, executive director of Maine’s ethics commission, sought clarification of the staff role in the investigation and was authorized to subpoena Brown, through attorney Bostrom, as needed.The commission meets next on Nov. 19.