The National Organization for Marriage, a leader in the campaign to ban same-sex marriage in the U.S., sustained a blow to its five-year effort to keep campaign donors' names secret on Wednesday.
The Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices ruled that NOM broke the law in 2009 by refusing to disclose donor names during its successful campaign to overturn the legalization of same-sex marriage in the state. The commission ordered NOM to pay more than $50,000 in penalties and to reveal supporters' identities.
"Maine people deserve to know who is funding political campaigns to influence their vote," a memo from the commission explains. The memo says NOM intentionally circumvented a law requiring political campaigns to disclose donors.
In a confidential internal document from August 2009, leaked that fall, NOM identified a "serious hurdle" in the way of its core goal of banning same-sex marriage nationwide. Written after a bruising fight over California's same-sex marriage ban, the document warned that recent "threats of intimidation" against donors may discourage people from making political contributions for ballot initiatives in states where political campaigns were required to disclose donor identities.
The memo proposed a workaround: Invite donors to give directly to NOM, instead of to the organization’s individual campaigns in those states. NOM could then funnel money to these campaigns from its coffers, while keeping quiet about where the money came from.
NOM gave roughly $2 million to Stand for Marriage Maine, a group formed by NOM president Brian Brown and the leaders of two other organizations, with the aim of striking down the marriage law. The donation amounted to roughly two-thirds of the group’s total budget.
Maine's Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices said this practice threatened to set a harmful precedent. “If this circumvention of disclosure laws were to be sanctioned, it would significantly reduce the amount of information available to voters in future elections if other large political advocacy groups used a similar rationale for not reporting their financial activity to influence elections in Maine," the commission's memo says.
This is not NOM’s first loss in the fight to keep its donors secret. Since 2009, NOM has filed two lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Maine's campaign finance laws. It lost both.
NOM president Brown, in an interview with The Huffington Post, described the Maine ruling as a "political witchhunt," and denied wrongdoing. Brown said he believes other groups opposing Maine's marriage law also failed to disclose donors, using the same strategy as his organization. "Its a basic part of American law that there should be fairness and justice should be equally applied," he said. "The reality is that we're going to appeal this decision," Brown said.
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 against a NOM-backed group called Protect Marriage Washington, declaring that the group broke the law by hiding the names of petition-signers during its fight against same-sex marriage in Washington state. Justice Antonin Scalia, no friend of gay causes, joined the majority, writing that fear of harassment is “a price our people have traditionally been willing to pay for self-governance."
Fred Karger, a gay activist who ran for president on the Republican ticket in 2012, called for Maine and other states to look into NOM’s campaign practices back in 2009. Although investigations are still playing out in Iowa and Hawaii, Karger said he considers the Maine report a major victory.
NOM is “still a force to be reckoned with,” Karger said. “But my goal is scare away their donors, and that’s what today really did.”
Back in 2009, NOM portrayed the Maine campaign as central to its efforts around the country. “Maine is about more than Maine,” Brown wrote, according to a fundraising email quoted in Wednesday’s report. Success in the state would prove that “there is no majority for gay marriage anywhere in these United States,” he added.
Three years after that, Maine citizens voted again, this time in favor of same-sex marriage. By the end of 2013, more than 1,500 gay couples had married in the state.