The state elections commission struck a powerful blow for political accountability last Wednesday when it unanimously accepted a staff recommendation and fined the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) more than $50,000, a record, for refusing to disclose the names of donors to its 2009 campaign against same-sex marriage in Maine.

NOM has been fighting Maine’s clearly written election law on this matter for four years, and it will be a good deal longer before we actually know who was funding the briefly successful campaign to repeal the marriage equality law passed the Legislature that year.

Voters reversed course just three years later, part of a nationwide change of heart on the subject that may establish equality as the law of the land far sooner than even its most optimistic supporters had hoped. So it might seem tempting to dismiss the NOM case as no big deal, yet in its broader impact, it is vital to efforts to create accountability for the billions of dollars now being spent on campaigns at the national, state and local level.

NOM will fight on – it has already lost numerous rounds in state and federal courts — yet ultimately the law will be complied with and NOM held accountable. That’s an important milestone as the nation and its elected representatives decide how to reconstruct a campaign finance system that several U.S. Supreme Court decisions have left in tatters.

Even in Citizens United, the most notorious of the 5-4 decisions that have essentially allowed unlimited campaign spending by individuals, corporations and unions, the court specifically raised the possibility of increased disclosure rules, and invited Congress to adopt them.

In currently gridlocked Washington, that won’t happen soon, so it’s doubly important that existing disclosure requirements be applied rigorously. That’s what the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices decision does.

NOM, which was by far the largest contributor to the 2009 repeal campaign, has consistently argued that its multiple cash infusions to the Maine campaign shouldn’t have to be disclosed because donors weren’t specifically giving money for that cause.

The staff report and the commissioners made short work of that fiction. The report quotes an email NOM sent to its largest contributor soliciting a $2 million gift that includes the following passage: “A victory in 2009 in Maine is critical to stopping the momentum of the same-sex marriage movement in the Northeast. The total budget for Maine is $3 million. We cannot designate any money given to NOM to the Maine effort because of disclosure requirements. But we do plan on contributing at least $200,000.”

In fact, NOM gave considerably more. The email provides solid evidence that NOM was trying to circumvent the disclosure requirement, while also tying the solicitation to the Maine campaign.

NOM’s attorney was extraordinarily creative in trying to explain how this quid pro quo wasn’t what it looked like, but he failed to convince any of the five commissioners who, it should be noted, represent both major political parties equally, along with an independent chairman.

Walt McKee, the chair, said the pattern of contributions to NOM, followed by donations to the Maine campaign in the same amount, often the following day, made it clear that the two campaigns were, in fact, tightly linked.

NOM was trying to have its cake and eat it, too. It clearly wanted to “stop the momentum” for same sex marriage, but wanted to do so without any of the accountability even the Supreme Court majority says is necessary to a fair election system.

The prospect that billionaires could be funding the campaigns of any number of candidates without the voters ever knowing who’s behind them is truly chilling. Decisions like Maine’s will help prevent that Orwellian outcome while we go back to work to repair the rest of the system.

For the first time since President Obama called out the Supreme Court over Citizens United, which was handed down just a week before his 2010 State of the Union address, there’s serious movement on dealing with its consequences.

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on a constitutional amendment that would restore the ability of Congress and the states to regulate campaign finance; Majority Leader Harry Reid says he’ll schedule a vote this year.

But whatever we end up with for regulations, they won’t work well if disclosure requirements can be evaded as easily as NOM tried to end-run Maine’s. It does matter how political campaigns are funded – and it matters even more that we know who’s responsible for them.

Douglas Rooks is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 29 years. He can be reached at [email protected]

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