AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s campaign ethics panel voted Monday to seek a $200 fine from one of the authors of a mysterious website that sought to trash Eliot Cutler during the independent’s campaign for governor.
The Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices is fining “John Doe No. 2” for violating campaign disclosure laws. But it also ruled that the other contributor to the Cutler Files website, identified only as “John Doe No. 1,” committed no violation.
The website, whose highly critical articles described Cutler as a “phony” and “fraud” in his professional and political activities, was taken offline shortly before he finished second behind Republican Paul LePage in the Nov. 2 election.
The originators of the website never have been identified publicly. Cutler’s attorney asked the ethics commission for an investigation to determine whether the site’s originators were required to comply with state campaign disclosure laws, saying voters have a right to know who they are.
Cutler attorney Dick Spencer told the commission that the site, which he described as vicious and full of lies, fell under the legal requirements for full disclosure, citing case law supporting public interest in knowing who is speaking about a candidate and Maine laws designed to prevent “character assassination and mudslinging in candidate elections.”
The five-member, bipartisan panel agreed that the first John Doe had committed no violation under state law and therefore was not required to make public an identity.
The commission also ruled that the second John Doe had violated the law by putting up a politically outspoken website without disclosing who was behind it. But the panel also continued to keep confidential that person’s identity in case its ruling is appealed to the courts. If the courts eventually rule no violation occurred, the identity would remain confidential.
The reasons for singling out the second John Doe were not revealed.
Spencer said he welcomes an appeal and that he’s confident it will support the commission’s ruling “and at the end of the day, Maine people will know who mounted this very inappropriate website that was pure character assassination.”
Dan Billings, the attorney representing the website’s sponsors, said he was disappointed with the ruling but appreciated the commission’s process that protected their anonymity.
Billings has refused to reveal the names of those behind the website, but said it was not another candidate or campaign. He said they were not paid to put up or contribute to the site, which he described as “an exercise in citizen journalism — researching, reporting and analyzing information about a candidate.”