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Maine Panel Hits Anti-Gay Marriage Group with Record Fine

The state Ethics Commission voted unanimously today to fine the National Organization for Marriage more than $50,000 for violating state campaign finance laws. But they could be waiting a long time for the check. NOM'S lawyers say they will appeal the ruling to Superior Court and beyond in order to protect the names of its donors who contributed nearly $2 million in Maine five years ago to the successful campaign to repeal the state's same-sex marriage law.

After five years of defeat in state and federal courts, the National Organization for Marriage is still refusing to back down - even after the state Ethics Commission hit the group with the largest fine ever imposed on a political action committee.

"This is exactly the thing that the Supreme Court cautioned against - chilling core political speech," said NOM board chair John Eastman.

Eastman reminded the commission that the nation's highest court has expressed concerns about the safety of political contributors who might be harassed or intimidated should their identities become public - an outcome that would, in fact, happen as the result of the state Ethics Commission's ruling.

But the commission decided to levy a $50,250 fine, finding that NOM had shielded the names of its donors and been less than forthright five years ago when it failed to register as a ballot question committee.

Eastman and NOM's president, Brian Brown, still maintain that, as a national organization, it was accepting donations from throughout the country to fight same-sex marriage legislation in several states, and that at no time was there a coordinated effort at the national level that attempted to influence the outcome of the repeal vote in Maine.

Walter McKee, commission chairman, disagreed.

"I think that if we took NOM's position here that they've been consistent about for the last five years to heart, and we voted on that basis, and we denied or we rejected the staff's recommendation, that we would really be accepting a mockery of our disclosure laws," McKee said.

McKee cited several transactions in which contributions collected from NOM in the hundreds of thousands of dollars were then transferred to the anti-same-sex marriage state political action committee known as Stand for Marriage Maine.

"To suggest that this was just a pure coincidence that this happened this way, was just - 'Wow, we decided to redirect almost the identical amounts' - really strains the credibility here," McKee said, "that this was just, you know, 'We weren't looking for Maine money here, and it just happens the same day we requested from the donor is that identical amount goes to Maine.' And that's a tough set of facts for you."

Commissioner Michael Healy pressed Eastman on the precise nature of NOM President Brian Brown's role in Maine, since he also served as one of the three operating officers in the Stand for Marriage Maine PAC.

Despite Eastman's insistence to the contrary, Healy says Brown was perfectly positioned to direct the flow of cash between the national and state organizations.

"Why was he serving in both capacities? Why was he wearing two hats?" Healy asked.

Eastman says the Ethics Commission ruling pivots on making connections between national contributions and state expenditures that aren't really there. Instead, he says NOM has a history of donors who make continuous contributions for use as the national organization sees fit, rather than for a targeted purpose such as Maine's 2009 gay marriage repeal effort.

"There's already a federal court finding that our donors did not donate specifically for this, but were in fact recurring donors," Eastman said. "That means that we are not allowed to use our general treasury to contribute to any political effort here in Maine without having to disclose all of our donors. And the Supreme Court's been very clear that that's unconstitutional. Now that we have a factual record, we will be taking that issue up on appeal."

Fred Karger is the California gay-rights advocate who triggered the NOM investigation when he filed a complaint against the group with the Ethics Commission five years ago. He credits the Ethics Commission for its work that led to the unanimous decision against NOM.

"The staff, for standing up to NOM who was obviously trying to cover up their donors, not comply with laws, sworn affidavit by Brian Brown, which was contradicted by all the evidence," Karger said. "And they just continue to lie and bully and harass, which they said they don't do. I've been a victim of their harassment many times. So I'm glad that justice was served."

NOM's executive team says their organization is a victim of selective prosecution by the state and that they plan to file a complaint with the Ethics Commission against the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group that has been active in Maine, which NOM says raises funds in much the same way.