AUGUSTA — The Maine ethics commission opted Thursday to drop a possible investigation into allegations that a state GOP official behaved improperly when he created a website to deliver news with a conservative slant without disclosing his role.
That site, the Maine Examiner, drew attention in December when it revealed internal campaign emails from Lewiston mayoral hopeful Ben Chin that were widely shared in the days leading up to a Dec. 12 runoff that saw Chin lose narrowly to Republican Shane Bouchard.
Kate Knox, a Democratic lawyer, told the commission the Examiner’s stories about Chin may have been “fundamental to the fact that Ben Chin lost” and certainly played “a big part” in the final days of the race.
The Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices voted 3-2 on Thursday to not pursue a complaint by the Maine Democratic Party that Jason Savage, executive director of the state Republicans, might have violated campaign finance rules by failing to report his involvement with the Examiner.
The swing vote belonged to the five-member panel’s chairwoman, Margaret Matheson of Augusta, who backed the decision not to pursue the ethics complaint filed by Democrats despite calling Savage’s lack of disclosure disturbing.
She said Savage’s decision to operate secretly in creating, overseeing and writing for the Examiner was “not a great thing to do.”
Matheson, however, said she was not convinced a probe would find anything more.
Demi Kouzounas, chairwoman of the state GOP, said the commission “proved its integrity today, dismissing baseless accusations.”
From the beginning,” she said, “we told the people of Maine this charge was without merit, and today we were vindicated.”
Savage, who talked openly Thursday about his role for the first time during the more than three-hour session, called it a victory for free speech.
Despite an agreement not to pursue the case, four of the five members expressed serious reservations about the way Savage created a site without identifying himself and used it to push a Republican-friendly agenda.
“There’s something unsavory about this,” said Bradford Pattershall, a commissioner from Freeport.
Pattershall added that the publicity surrounded Savage’s actions ought to help get the word out that others should not follow the GOP official’s lead.
The two commissioners who sought greater investigation said they wanted ethics staff members to find out whether they could turn up evidence that would show more definitively whether Savage’s claim that he acted entirely separate from the Republican Party is true.
William Lee III, a Waterville lawyer who pushed hardest for a probe, said Savage’s secrecy about the Examiner raised questions. It was not known until a California expert found Savage’s name in the site’s metadata.
“If there’s nothing to hide, why hide?” Lee asked. “What’s the reason for keeping it secret?”
Savage, though, had an answer.
He said he created the Examiner in September because he enjoys writing and wanted a venue to pursue it. He said it was not all about politics, insisting his anonymous stories touched on “a lot of different things.”
Savage said he kept his name off the site because he hoped it would become “a larger, more robust entity” in the future if he could avoid attacks that would inevitably follow if “certain people” knew about his role.
The Examiner, he said, is a model for the “community-based news” site he envisioned it could become, not a partisan project but an avenue to pursue a dream.
Besides, Savage said, leaving his name out of it allowed him to write on topics that the GOP’s executive director might have a touchier time discussing. Savage cited a story he wrote about tax breaks that rich people and big businesses receive as an example, content that readers might view differently if they knew he wrote it.
Richard Nass, another commission member, said the Democrats who complained about the case presented “a confusing situation” and wanted the panel to sort it out, which he vehemently opposed.
“We’re not the FBI here,” said Nass of Acton. Nass said he couldn’t see anywhere for an investigation to go.
Lee said he thought further investigation would serve a useful function of determining the truth and would avoid leaving Savage “under a cloud of suspicion.”
Digging into the Examiner and Savage may find “this is his little baby and he did it all by himself.”
Nass said, though, that articles in newspapers such as The Boston Globe, the Bangor Daily News and the Portland Press Herald are responsible for raising that cloud — and more investigation wouldn’t help clear the air.
“These people, they’re all lined up on one side already,” Nass said. “Who’s establishing their legitimacy?”
“But we know who they are,” Matheson responded.
“Yeah, we know who they are all right,” Nass answered.
Meri Lowry, a commissioner from Portland, said she was concerned about how the Examiner operated without telling readers who owned it.
“I’m troubled by the anonymity, which goes against the purpose” of campaign finance disclosure laws, Lowry said.
What that meant, she said, is that voters in Lewiston who were exposed to its stories “didn’t have the chance to consider” that they “were authored by Mr. Savage,” a fact that might have changed their view of what they were looking at.
Knox said that Savage’s stories took aim at Democrats, an indication that Savage was just doing his job for the GOP.
“He was doing exactly the same activities he would have been doing with the party,” Knox said.
Pattershall said Savage is “intertwined with the Republican Party. There’s no question about that.”
Lee said he was worried that secretive websites, such as the Examiner, could offer “a potential for real abuse” in the months and years ahead.
Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett said in a prepared statement that despite the panel’s decision, “it is clear to us that they were universally disturbed by Savage’s behavior, skeptical of his explanations and disapproving of his anonymity.”
“As a result of this complaint,” Bartlett said, “the Maine Democratic Party was able to drive Savage out of the shadows, hold him accountable to the public for his disturbing actions, and shine a bright light on the underhanded tactics that he and the Maine Republican Party are willing to engage in.”
Savage insisted that whatever work he did for the Examiner was on his own time, not in the hours the GOP was paying him to work.
“I was very careful in every way” to “have a line between my activities and the party,” Savage said, pointing out that his work schedule varied widely from week to week. He said he does not have a clear schedule, just a requirement he gets the job done.
Among the issues on which commissioners focused Thursday: the purchase of Facebook advertisements by the state GOP that shared links to Examiner stories about Chin in the week before the Lewiston election in December.
Savage said he talked with Kouzounas about whether to take out $950 worth of ads.
Kouzounas said in a written statement that she had talked with Savage about the validity of the claims in the Examiner stories and was satisfied they were true.
Savage said he never told her he wrote the stories, merely that “we knew they were real.”
“I knew that material was real and it wasn’t made up,” Savage said he told his boss.
Savage is still publishing on the Examiner’s website. But he may go further still.
Savage said he wants to publish a book “on all sorts of ways to restore integrity in state government.”
Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, discusses “fake news” on a GOP video last year. (File photo)
The Maine ethics commission, chaired by Margaret Matheson, left, voted Thursday to drop a possible investigation into a complaint filed by the Maine Democrats against the state GOP, its executive director and the Maine Examiner, an online paper. Commissioner William Lee III, right, argued that the commission ought to pursue the probe. Matheson said she was disturbed by the secretive website operated by Jason Savage, the Republican official, but did not think the commission should devote more time to the issue. (Steve Collins/Sun Journal)
Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, listens to testimony Thursday at a meeting of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices. (Steve Collins/Sun Journal)