Democrats cry foul as photos tie GOP to Maine Examiner

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[UPDATE: More ties discovered between Maine GOP’s director and a secretive website]

AUGUSTA — Shortly after lunch on the first Monday of December, Maine Republican Party Executive Director Jason Savage copied an online photograph of Lewiston mayoral candidate Ben Chin onto his computer.

Savage’s copied picture, titled “chin-profile-two,” wound up illustrating a story that ran the following day, Dec. 5, in the secretive Maine Examiner.

The story, written by “Administrator,” took issue with the mayoral hopeful’s use of the word “revolution” in an email to campaign supporters in October. It was part of a series of stories the Maine Examiner published before the Dec. 12 Lewiston mayoral runoff supporting Republican Shane Bouchard’s successful bid to defeat Chin.

At least six times in December and January, other pictures that passed through Savage’s computer wound up on the Maine Examiner’s site, prompting some Democrats and critics of the Maine Examiner on Wednesday to claim there is a tie between the anonymous site and Savage.

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Chin said the data shows “a very clear connection” between Savage and the Examiner, which Democrats charge is a violation of state campaign finance laws and a serious ethical breach.

Savage, who hasn’t addressed in public his connection to the right-leaning online publication, did not respond Tuesday or Wednesday to repeated requests for comment from the Sun Journal by telephone and email.

That his name appeared as the pictures’ author is not proof that Savage had a direct tie to the stories that ran with them. It’s possible that Savage downloaded the pictures and passed them to others who subsequently fed them to the Examiner.

The Maine Democratic Party filed a complaint this week with the Maine ethics commission alleging that the GOP worked hand in hand with the Maine Examiner to spread slanted and thinly sourced news stories to advance its political agenda. The complaint said state law requires disclosure of the political party’s assistance and funding and alleged Republicans have kept it under wraps.

Phil Bartlett, the Maine Democratic Party chairman, said Wednesday the revelation about Savage’s photos illustrating Maine Examiner stories shows “the Maine GOP has stooped to a new low, proving that they are willing to go to unprecedented levels to deceive people in order to accomplish their political goals. They should be ashamed.”

He said the state GOP “peddled misleading and inaccurate information, tried to hide behind the safety of anonymity, and then lied about it to the people of Maine — likely breaking the law.”

“This proves that the Maine Democratic Party’s complaint is justified, and that the investigation we requested must move forward,” Bartlett said.

Bartlett said that “every Republican leader in Maine — including the gubernatorial candidates — should condemn this dishonest behavior and tell the people of Maine that their party should not be led by liars like Jason Savage” and political and communications director Garrett Murch.

“We call on Republicans to ensure that Savage and Murch, along with their shameful behavior, no longer have a home in Maine politics,” Bartlett said.

The Maine Examiner, which began publishing this past fall, is not listed as a business organization with the Maine secretary of state. It doesn’t list any owners or staff, but its website notes it is run by “a small group of Mainers.”

Its stories are generally truthful, if one-sided, delivering the news with a right-wing spin. Savage has sometimes shared them on social media.

In a Jan. 17 piece on its website, the Examiner said it “may produce some news content that liberals and progressives don’t want you to read, but we get our facts straight and we provide the proof to back up our claims.”

The discovery of the Savage-created pictures was made by a California web developer, Tony Perry, who saw a news story about the Democrats’ ethics complaint and decided to try to figure out who created the Maine Examiner site.

He said he poked around enough to realize the ownership had been masked online, which is fairly common.

Then he downloaded some of the pictures the Examiner had run and took a look at the metadata that sometimes provides information about the origin of photographs.

He quickly found some that carried Savage’s name as the author.

“Who’s this Jason Savage?” he said he asked himself, “so I just Googled him.”

The Sun Journal examined the metadata embedded in six pictures on the Maine Examiner site that originated from Savage’s computer. One, a picture of gubernatorial hopeful Alan Caron, was copied from Caron’s website by Savage as recently as last week. It wound up as the artwork for a campaign finance story by the Maine Examiner.

The metadata shows Savage created it at 5:02 p.m. on Jan. 17. The story itself was posted by the Examiner at 5:16 p.m., a gap of 14 minutes. It is possible, though, the time stamps do not accurately reflect the actual times involved.

Chin, who lost his mayoral bid by 145 votes, said nothing surprises him about how Savage and the GOP operate. He said some people, including Savage, “enjoy scoring little points and making people feel bad” instead of pursuing politics as a way of making a better world.

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This photograph that ran with a Maine Examiner story about Ben Chin carries in its metadata an indication that Maine Republican Party Executive Director Jason Savage created it.

The metadata tag for a photograph of Ben Chin used by the Maine Examiner on Dec. 5 with an anonymous story attacking the Lewiston mayoral candidate.

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