AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Ethics Commission has launched an investigation into who was behind a wave of anonymous, recorded phone calls reportedly questioning Republican gubernatorial nominee Paul LePage’s “moral values” hours before the polls opened on June 8.
Several individuals reported receiving automated phone calls — also known as “robocalls” — on June 7 that targeted LePage, the Waterville Republican who soundly won the GOP primary a day later.
Robocalls are a common campaign tactic, especially in the final hours of the election. But Maine’s campaign finance laws require such calls to disclose who paid for them and if a particular candidate endorsed the message.
The anti-LePage calls contained no such disclosure, infuriating supporters of the Waterville mayor who viewed them as a last-minute — and illegal — attempt to smear the candidate. Several people who received calls, in turn, contacted the Maine Ethics Commission, which oversees the state’s campaign finance reporting system.
On Thursday, commissioners voted unanimously to direct staff to investigate the source of the calls.
“It absolutely should be [investigated] because it could happen again before the fall election,” said commissioner Edward Youngblood, a former Republican lawmaker now living in Bangor.
“I think it is important for the state to demonstrate that these laws matter,” said Jonathan Wayne, the executive director of the commission staff, adding that he found such anonymous political messages “troubling.”
The calls reportedly focused, at least in part, on LePage’s position on civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, which had generated some confusion during the campaign. The recorded voice allegedly asked listeners, “If we can’t trust Paul LePage on moral values, how can we trust him to run the state of Maine?”
LePage, who campaigned on a conservative platform, is a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage but had indicated several times during his primary run that he might support civil unions. But LePage later said he would be supportive, instead, of what he called “civil contracts” open to all Mainers, regardless of sexual orientation.
On Thursday, LePage said in an interview that he does not support civil unions because the phrase means different things to different people. For some, a civil union is a first step toward legalizing same-sex marriage while to others it is merely a legal contract, he said.
LePage said he supports allowing any Mainers to enter into legal contracts together in order to buy property, adopt children, establish power-of-attorney or convey inheritance rights upon the death of one partner.
“I don’t believe in changing the definition of marriage,” he said.
LePage, who is currently on a leave of absence from his job as an executive at the discount retailer Marden’s, won 37 percent of the GOP vote in a seven-way primary race.
The campaign to ferret out the source of the anti-LePage robocalls appears to have begun with Robert Stone, a Republican and LePage supporter from Auburn.
Stone posted a message on the conservative-leaning website www.asmainegoes.com almost immediately after receiving one of the calls just after 8 p.m. June 7. Several people subsequently reported receiving the same call.
Stone first reported the incident to the Ethics Commission the next day and filed a formal complaint on June 11.
“I’m pretty familiar with Maine election law and it requires disclosure,” Stone, a former legislative candidate, said Thursday during an interview. “I just don’t think it’s right that any entity, be it a candidate or an activist group, could blatantly disregard Maine law, and that is why I reported it.”
Stone also supplied the Ethics Commission with the Vermont phone number that appeared on his caller ID when he received the robocall. Return calls to that number go directly to an answering machine, directing callers to leave a message. There is no name or company identified on the message.