AUGUSTA, Maine — Thom Rhoads, the husband of former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rosa Scarcelli, admitted Thursday he was the second person behind the anonymous anti-Eliot Cutler website that has been the subject of a lengthy investigation by the Maine Ethics Commission.
Rhoads acknowledged his role in the Cutler Files site moments after the Ethics Commission voted to impose a fine of $200 on political consultant Dennis Bailey for failing to disclose who paid for the site and whether it was tied to another campaign.
The site attacking Cutler — an independent who finished second in the race for the Blaine House — was taken down shortly before the November election.
Although Rhoads researched and wrote much of the material seeking to discredit Cutler, he was not named by the commission because the investigation determined Rhoads did not violate any of Maine’s campaign finance laws.
But the Portland resident said Thursday that friends and family — and his wife, in particular — urged him to publicly discuss his involvement in the site.
“While I was not the author, creator or owner of the website, I assisted the person who was,” Rhoads wrote. “As a private citizen, I performed independent research on my own time and my own accord. Although I did not create the website itself, much of the information I found eventually became a part of that website.”
Both Rhoads and Scarcelli insisted in separate statements on Thursday that she had no knowledge of his research during her failed bid for the Democratic nomination. Scarcelli said she learned about the site and her husband’s research into Cutler after the primary.
“I want to be clear, my wife had no involvement in this endeavor,” he wrote. “When she learned of it, she was extremely disappointed. She asked that I cooperate fully with the Ethics Commission investigation — which I have done — as well as come forward to the public, which I am doing today.”
Added Scarcelli in her own statement: “I indicated that I was disappointed in their actions and thought they should take down the site. I did not want to be associated with an anonymous website.”
Despite those assertions, however, Scarcelli likely will face nagging questions about the Cutler Files site should the 41-year-old businesswoman decide to run for public office again, according to University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer.
“It’s certainly the case that her star has dimmed as a result of this,” said Brewer, adding that Scarcelli’s reluctance to talk about the issue before Thursday likely caused further harm. “The fact that this was done by a political consultant on her payroll and her husband doesn’t look good.”
It is unclear what impact the Cutler Files website had on its target, who finished 4 percentage points behind Republican Gov. Paul LePage despite a late surge. But the case triggered an intense debate about politics in the Internet age and when — or if — campaign regulators should get involved in anonymous political free speech.
Launched in August 2010, the site assailed Cutler on his wealth, his career at one of Washington, D.C.’s largest legal and lobbying firms, his work with Chinese companies and ties to a failed mortgage firm. The site called Cutler “a phony and a fraud,” accusing him of revising history in order to hide the truth and win votes.
Cutler’s lawyers, meanwhile, insisted the site contained only distorted half-truths and misinformation intended as a “character assassination” of the candidate. Dismissing the authors’ insistence that the site was a volunteer labor, Cutler’s attorneys said it had the telltale signs of being done by campaign professionals.
They filed a complaint against the site’s anonymous creators alleging that, under Maine’s campaign finance laws, they should have to come out from behind their curtain of anonymity and disclose their funding source.
During its investigation, the commission determined that the authors spent less than the $100 that would require them to file detailed campaign expenditure reports. But the commission said the publicly accessible website needed the standard disclosures about who paid for it and whether it was authorized or endorsed by any other candidate.
Citing First Amendment concerns, the commission initially refused to publicly release the names of the authors despite repeated media requests and lengthy legal arguments from Cutler’s attorneys. The commission named Bailey this month after he publicly acknowledged his role.
The commission never named Rhoads, although the Cutler campaign named him in documents related to the case.
Last year, Rhoads told the Portland Press Herald that he “can unequivocally state that I am not the author, owner or creator of The Cutler Files, nor did I post any information on it or any other website.”
On Thursday, Rhoads repeated the claim, although he acknowledged his role as an assistant. He also said he stood by the accuracy of his anti-Cutler research.
“Even though anonymous speech is legal and often appropriate, I also understand that an important part of campaigns should be disclosure, transparency and personal responsibility,” he wrote.
Bailey, meanwhile, continued to disagree with the commission’s finding against him.
In a letter sent Monday to the commission, Bailey took particular issue with the commission’s determination that, unlike newspapers and other traditional media, Cutler Files and similar sites are not exempt from campaign finance disclosure requirements.
“The point is that if you intend to enforce campaign disclosure and finance laws every time a candidate complains of an anonymous website or posting (as this ruling would seem to suggest), you should be prepared to be overwhelmed in the years ahead,” Bailey wrote. “Like it or not, information via the Web is becoming a leading source of news for most people, and your definition of what constitutes journalism today simply doesn’t match reality.”
Dick Spencer, an attorney for Cutler, said the entire purpose of the original complaint was to prevent similar anonymous “character assassinations” of candidates.
“We think the commission’s decision goes a long way to serving that purpose,” Spencer said.
The case could lead to tougher penalties for those who violate the same election disclosure laws. The commission is seeking legislative approval to increase the maximum fine from $200 to $5,000.