Secrecy Shrouds “Yes on 1” on Both Sides of Campaign Ledger

by Paul Hogarth on October 28, 2009

For the last filing period, the “Yes on 1” campaign in Maine raised $1.4 million – with $1.1 million coming from one source, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). All told, the right-wing group has financed 64% of the effort to strip marriage rights from same-sex couples – but there’s no way of knowing where their money comes from because they didn’t register as a PAC with the Maine Ethics Commission. Meanwhile, NOM (which many believe is a front for the Mormon Church), is suing the state to keep its donor list secret – claiming a right to “anonymous speech.” But “Yes on 1” also has secrecy on the expense side of its ledger. A stunning 62% of their entire budget has gone to pay Criswell & Associates – a San Francisco ad firm that uses the pseudonym Mar/Com Services Inc. (which is not a registered corporation), has a website that has been “under construction” for weeks, and has changed its address from an office on Union Square to a P.O. Box on Bush Street. With one week left to go before the vote, it’s still hard to tell where the “Yes on 1” money is coming from – and how it’s being used.

On October 13th, both campaigns on Question 1 released their new finance reports. And it became clear how energized the grassroots was about protecting marriage equality, and how much the right-wing had underestimated that support. The “No on 1” campaign had raised over $2.7 million, mostly in small donations (including over a million from the netroots), while “Yes on 1” was only at $1.1 million. It prompted their spokesman, Marc Mutty, to send an urgent appeal for funds – claiming that they were “under financial assault.” NOM followed up the next day, with its own appeal to help “Yes on 1.”

In less than two weeks, the anti-gay forces have more than doubled their warchest – with a $1.1 million contribution from NOM. All told, the National Organization for Marriage has contributed $1.6 million to “Yes on 1” – or 64% of its entire campaign treasury. The Portland Roman Catholic Diocese has kicked in over half a million dollars, and Focus on the Family has given nearly $100,000. Marc Mutty’s “red-alert” e-mail generated less than $100,000 in small donations – but a giant check from NOM that is footing their bills.

Who is NOM, the National Organization for Marriage? Based in New Jersey, the group was founded in 2007 by Maggie Gallagher (the right-wing columnist who got busted for getting paid by the Bush Administration to write favorable articles.) They just appeared out of nowhere this year to produce the famous “Gathering Storm” TV ads – a bizarre account on the “perils” of same-sex marriage, which Stephen Colbert said on Comedy Central was “like watching the 700 Club and the Weather Channel at the same time.” But we really don’t know much else, besides the fact that they’re loaded.

Earlier this week, “Yes on 1” tried to make hay out of the fact that “No on 1” had paid Maine House Speaker Hannah Pingree (whose profession outside of the state’s part-time legislature is a fundraiser) $5,175 for her services. Meanwhile, “Yes on 1” paid Marc Mutty $10,000 in a two-week period to be their campaign spokesman – while he’s “on leave” from his job at the Portland Catholic Diocese. But reports from the Maine Ethics Commission show that Mutty received $5,000 from the Diocese in the very same period.

How do we know this? Because unlike NOM, the Portland Catholic Diocese is registered with the Maine Ethics Commission as a PAC – so we know where its money comes from and goes. Despite being by far the largest contributor to either side in the Question 1 debate, NOM refuses to comply – and has sued to block an Ethics Commission probe. Its attorney even argued that there is a “long tradition” of “anonymous speech” – as a basis for not disclosing who they are.

This has led many to believe that NOM is a front for the Mormon Church – who was heavily involved last year in California’s Prop 8 fight, but has been noticeably silent in Maine. One of NOM’s Board members is on the faculty at Brigham Young University.

As the campaign heads into the final week (with just seven days to go), “Yes on 1” has reported a meteoric rise in spending for its TV ads – according to the 24-Hour disclosures required by law for last-minute campaign expenses. In the last five days, “Yes on 1” has spent a whopping $550,738 on new media ad buys. As of last week’s report that they had filed, “Yes on 1” only had $348,000 in “cash-on-hand” and a campaign debt of $148,000.

Where did “Yes on 1” suddenly get all this money in the past week? Not from Focus on the Family, or the Portland Catholic Diocese – because they are both registered as PACs, and would be required to disclose such expenses. Unless there’s some other (unreported) donor out there, it’s becoming now apparent that NOM is paying their campaign’s bills.

The Maine press, the “No on 1” campaign and the liberal blogosphere have reported on these huge contributions from NOM – which will hopefully attract scrutiny. But at the same time, it’s interesting to look at the other side of the “Yes on 1” campaign ledger – and figure out who is profiting from this massive transfer of money. While right-wing consultant Frank Schubert (who ran the “Yes on 8” campaign in California) has reaped handsomely from this campaign, Criswell & Associates is now $1.56 million richer.

Criswell & Associates is the firm that produces all the “Yes on 1” ads, and they’re based out of San Francisco. But what’s curious is how careful they have been about hiding the company’s identity on the Maine Ethics Commission reports. The firm – which is located on Maiden Lane by Union Square – is referred to as Mar/Com Services Inc. According to the database at the California Secretary of State’s Office, no such corporation exists.

Back in mid-September when bloggers first reported that “Yes on 1” ads were being filmed in San Francisco, Criswell & Associates had a robust website. All of a sudden, the site shut down – and has been “under construction” ever since. Then, the “Yes on 1” campaign filings changed the address of Criswell’s firm from 58 Maiden Lane to a P.O. Box at 250 Bush Street.

“Not much is known about Bill Criswell,” wrote blogger David Hart. “He is about 60 years old. He seems to have attended, but not graduated from, the University of Iowa. He is a trustee or ‘Regent’ of Holy Names University. Criswell may be straight or gay; married or single. No photo can be found.” Further Internet searches show that he’s on the Board of Directors for the International Advertising Association, but there really isn’t that much more to know.

In other words, we have nearly $1.6 million – almost two-thirds – of the campaign budget to repeal gay marriage in Maine coming from a group that refuses to disclose its donors, and nearly the same amount being spent by that campaign to pay a secretive company that tries to wipe away its Internet presence when under scrutiny. Is Bill Criswell like Arthur Finkelstein, the vicious right-wing consultant who kept his identity secret (no photo is available of him)?

While it’s important to ask about the lack of transparency of the “Yes on 1” campaign’s funding source, it’s just as relevant to ask why they’re not being upfront about who is getting their money. After all, the latter profits off right-wing bigotry in the end.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Paul Hogarth is going back to Maine to assist the “No on 1” effort for the final week of the campaign.

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