AUGUSTA — Thomas Rhoads, the husband of former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rosa Scarcelli, acknowledged Thursday his involvement in an anonymous website attacking independent Eliot Cutler.
Rhoads’ admission in contributing to “The Cutler Files” site immediately followed the Maine ethics commission’s unanimous vote to protect Rhoads’ anonymity while fining and identifying his cohort, Dennis Bailey, a longtime political operative. Bailey, who was fined $200, had worked on Scarcelli’s campaign last summer. He joined independent Shawn Moody’s Blaine House run following Scarcelli’s third-place finish in the Democratic primary.
Rhoads’ involvement had previously been reported, but his statement on Thursday marked the first time he admitted his participation in the website after public denials by him and his wife.
In a written statement, Rhoads said he did independent research for the site, but was not its owner. He also denied that Scarcelli knew about his work on “The Cutler Files.” Scarcelli, who has hinted that she has future political ambitions, reiterated her husband’s claim in a separate statement.
“I found out about the website at the same time everybody else did, long after my campaign for governor ended with the primary election,” Scarcelli said. “I was not involved in my husband’s research.”
Scarcelli said she confronted Rhoads and Bailey.
“I indicated that I was disappointed in their actions and thought they should take down the site,” she said. “I did not want to be associated with an anonymous website.”
Rhoads said his wife told him to cooperate with the ethics investigation immediately after she learned of his involvement. The investigation began Sept. 9. Jonathan Wayne, the executive director of the commission, said it began interviewing Rhoads — identified as John Doe 1 in the report — in mid-December.
On Oct. 26, Scarcelli told the Portland Press Herald that she and her husband hadn’t even seen “The Cutler Files.”
“Eliot Cutler is playing the victim,” she told the paper, “and people in Maine want him to man up.”
On Thursday, Scarcelli said she disapproved of her husband’s actions but stood “firmly beside him.”
Rhoads defended his “research,” writing that its accuracy had not been disproved.
“I believed then and I believe now that it is important that the public have the information — news articles and other public documents — in order to make an informed decision regarding the next governor of the state of Maine,” Rhoads wrote.
The report of the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Elections Practices said Rhoads attempted to sell his work to a campaign opposing Cutler. The campaign was not identified in the report.
On Thursday, the commission reiterated its decision to not identify Rhoads because he wasn’t affiliated with a campaign, and therefore, was not violating campaign disclosure laws. It argued that Bailey could be identified because the consultant was advising Moody’s campaign at the time “The Cutler Files” was active, even though the site at one point contained a disclaimer that said the authors weren’t affiliated with any campaign.
In a Jan. 24 letter to the commission, Bailey wrote that he found this reasoning “perplexing” because of his First Amendment rights.
The commission also noted that “The Cutler Files” was not exempt from disclosure laws because it wasn’t produced by a news outlet. Bailey countered that the finding was a “badly out-of-date definition” for modern journalism.
“If ‘The Cutler Files’ cannot be defined as journalism, then what was it exactly?” he wrote. “Granted, it may be advocacy journalism, but so is a newspaper editorial.”
Bailey also indicated that he may appeal the commission’s decision in court.
Bailey’s $200 fine was the maximum allowed by Maine law.
The penalty could increase to $5,000 for future offenders. The commission voted unanimously Thursday to increase the penalty as part of a series of changes in campaign laws.
The proposals would have to be approved by the Legislature to become law.