AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Ethics Commission voted Wednesday to proceed with an investigation into whether the people behind a website targeting independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler have violated the state’s campaign disclosure laws.
But the commission declined to wade deeper into two complaints filed in recent days by Maine’s Democratic and Republican parties, each accusing the other party’s nominee for governor of violating Maine’s campaign finance laws.
In the latest development in the controversy over the website www.CutlerFiles.com, the commission voted unanimously to continue its investigation into whether the site’s anonymous creators should have to identify themselves or their funding source.
Commissioners elected to keep that investigation confidential, however, meaning that the identity of the people behind the attack site likely will remain a secret, pending the outcome of the inquiry.
Cutler’s lawyers contend the site is a professionally designed “character assassination” attempt on Cutler that includes false information. Under Maine’s campaign finance laws, they say, the creators should have to come out from behind their curtain of anonymity and-or disclose their funding source.
That is the same law that requires every political television ad to contain disclaimers about who paid for the ad and whether or not it was endorsed by a particular candidate or campaign.
The site calls Cutler “a phony and a fraud,” raising questions about his years as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., and his ties to Chinese companies and to a failed mortgage firm, among other topics.
In a sworn but anonymous affidavit filed with the commission, the site’s authors stated that the total anticipated cost for the site — including domain name registration and Web hosting — is $92.54, just shy of the $100 threshold required to report “independent expenditures” to the Ethics Commission.
They also claim two people performed all of the research and Web design on their own time and were not compensated for their work.
“It should be noted that the research was not done with any specific purpose or outcome in mind,” states the affidavit, which was filed by Dan Billings, an attorney representing the site’s authors. “The research was a project for purely personal reasons. The idea of a website did not emerge until the summer of 2010.”
“We find it hard to believe that the research was done purely for personal reasons,” Richard Spencer, an attorney for the Cutler campaign, said during Wednesday’s commission meeting. “We believe it was done as part of a June gubernatorial primary campaign in anticipation of a person running against Eliot Cutler in the general election.”
Maine’s political circles have been abuzz for weeks with rumors or theories about who is behind the site.
Documents obtained from the Maine Ethics Commission under the Freedom of Access laws show that the commission prepared a subpoena for Dennis Bailey for questioning related to the site. The subpoena was never formally delivered because the commission suspended its investigation. Bailey had informally talked with the commission before the preparation of the subpoena.
Bailey is a well-known political consultant who, during the Democratic primary, worked for candidate Rosa Scarcelli, a Portland businesswoman. Bailey now works for the campaign of independent gubernatorial candidate Shawn Moody.
But Bailey said in a recent interview that he is not responsible for the site.
“I know stuff about it, but I’m not responsible for the content,” Bailey told the Bangor Daily News. “That’s what I told [Jonathan] Wayne,” the commission’s executive director.
Ted O’Meara, spokesman for Cutler, said the campaign was pleased with Wednesday’s vote.
“The most important thing is they are obviously taking this seriously and are moving forward with the investigation,” O’Meara said.
Also Wednesday, commissioners dealt with two complaints filed by the Maine Democratic Party and the Maine Republican Party against the other’s gubernatorial candidate.
The commission members quickly dismissed the Democrats’ complaint that GOP nominee Paul LePage failed to disclose his use of a company car on his campaign finance report and wrongly received mileage reimbursement.
LePage’s campaign said the candidate has had a company car for more than a decade and is allowed by his employer, Marden’s, to use it for personal use.
The Maine Republican Party, meanwhile, had complained that Democratic gubernatorial nominee Libby Mitchell was violating the rules of Maine’s public campaign financing system by airing a television ad that features three of her family members who are, themselves, running for political office.
The ad focuses on the fact that all four Mitchell children moved back to Maine to live and raise families.
Both Emily Mitchell, who is running for a House seat, and Will Mitchell, who is running for Portland City Council, are shown and named in the ad. Jim Mitchell, Libby Mitchell’s husband, who is running unopposed for re-election to the Probate Court, is shown but not named.
After lengthy discussion, commissioners effectively denied the GOP request.