AUGUSTA — The executive director of the Maine Republican Party, Jason Savage, admitted to a state ethics panel that he is the owner and operator of the secretive Maine Examiner website that published leaked emails from unsuccessful Lewiston mayoral candidate Ben Chin’s campaign.
Savage’s attorneys said the GOP official runs the site “in his free time and separately and distinctly from his duties as a paid employee of the Maine Republican Party.”
Democrats scoffed at the assertion.
“There aren’t any ifs, ands or buts about it: Jason Savage is the heart of the Maine Republican Party, and he created this misleading content with the singular goal of using his party’s apparatus to amplify it,” Phil Bartlett, the Maine Democratic Party’s chairman, said.
Bartlett said Savage “did so deceitfully, under the cloak of secrecy, and with the intent to mislead Maine people.”
“The argument they’re making now is nothing more than a sad, last-ditch Hail Mary to bail themselves out – but any Mainer will tell you that it just doesn’t pass the straight-face test. What Savage did was wrong, and he owes the people of Maine nothing short of an apology – although his resignation would be more appropriate,” Bartlett said.
The Feb. 12 letter from Savage’s attorneys, filed with the Maine Ethics Commission, said that because the Examiner “falls squarely within the requirements for the press exemption” and its owner is now known, there shouldn’t be any ethics concern related to it.
The Maine Democratic Party filed a complaint about the site, alleging that it broke campaign finance rules by serving as a GOP scandal sheet without citing its contributors or owner. Republicans shared its stories widely on social media.
Savage’s lawyers, Joshua Tardy and Colton Gross, said that Savage spent only $74 on the site, to register it with GoDaddy.com, and was always “a personal project of Jason Savage” unrelated to his work for the state GOP.
The Maine Republicans said in a separate letter that “contrary to the groundless speculation” by Democrats and the press “there was no orchestrated subterfuge” by the GOP “to create an anonymous website to skirt campaign finance laws.”
“In fact,” the party said, “the Maine Examiner is not an instrument” of the party, which hasn’t contributed any money to it and “neither operates nor controls the Maine Examiner or its content.”
The Republicans said that until the Democrats filed a complaint, it had no knowledge of the site’s owner or operator.
After the complaint was filed with the ethics panel, the GOP said, it learned of Savage’s involvement with the Examiner “in his individual capacity, at his own expense, and outside the scope of his employment” with the party.
The Examiner, which began publishing in late summer, has covered a wide variety of topics, presenting news with a distinctly conservative slant but normally with a reasonable degree of truth.
The stories about the Chin emails were particularly explosive because they came out in the days immediately preceding the Dec. 12 runoff election when GOP-backed Shane Bouchard defeated Chin by 142 votes. The emails were cast by the Examiner as showing that Chin thought many in Lewiston were racists.
In the 2015 Lewiston mayoral race, the state Republicans created a website devoted to attacking Chin. It cited the GOP as its creator, a requirement for political campaign material under Maine law.
That site, called The Real Ben Chin, featured a number of harsh posts about Chin’s alleged words and activities over the years.
After remaining dormant for two years, that site’s Facebook page suddenly revived shortly before the 2017 election to share three of the Examiner’s stories about Chin’s emails.
Maine Republican Party Executive Director Jason Savage discusses “fake news” on a GOP video last year. (File photo)