AUGUSTA, Maine — Data embedded in an anonymous “news” website that influenced a key Lewiston election has been linked to a top Maine Republican Party official, a finding that may add fuel to Democrats’ call for an ethics investigation.
The Maine Examiner gained attention after it targeted Lewiston mayoral candidate Ben Chin, a progressive activist who lost a December runoff to Republican Shane Bouchard after the site published negative articles about Chin.
One of the stories included real, leaked emails from Chin’s campaign in which the candidate said he ran into a “ bunch of racists” while stumping during the race. Both state parties were organizing in the nominally nonpartisan race in Maine’s second-largest city.
But on Wednesday, the the Sun Journal reported that metadata stored within files of images posted to the Maine Examiner originated with Jason Savage, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party.
The Maine Republican Party hasn’t commented on the reported links, but the Maine Democratic Party said in a complaint to the Maine Ethics Commission on Tuesday that Republicans may have violated state laws forcing entities making independent expenditures above $250 in a municipal election report them to the city or town and disclose information about funders.
A Bangor Daily News review of images on the site found eight files labeled with Savage’s name, including photos of Chin and a Chevrolet truck, plus an apparent screenshot of the Twitter account of University of Maine political scientist Amy Fried, who writes a liberal BDN column.
In a Thursday statement, Maine Republican Party spokesman Garrett Murch said, “We are extremely diligent in reporting all expenses in a timely manner and the Democrat Party’s allegations are without merit.” But the party didn’t answer other questions about the links.
That included one question about Murch’s December conversation with the BDN, in which he said that he didn’t know who ran the Maine Examiner. He then declined comment when asked if the party coordinated with it.
The Sun Journal notes that the images could simply have been initially created by Savage and published by others. But the error log issue would be more difficult to explain away.
Democrats’ ethics complaint against Republicans was relatively thin, with no evidence to support coordination with the Maine Examiner. But now there is more heft to it.
While media outlets are exempt from the ethics laws in question here, Maine handled a similar case on an anonymous website in 2010, when the ethics commission found that a political operative’s site about independent gubernatorial hopeful Eliot Cutler wasn’t journalism because the operative was working for a rival candidate.
A federal court agreed, upholding a $200 fine. So while any fine levied by the commission could be minor, a “journalism” excuse may be even harder to use this time.
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