The Maine Ethics Commission could once again rule whether traditional political attacks carried out by an anonymous website attempted to influence an election. This time the attacks were cloaked as news reports.
Earlier this week the Maine Democratic Party filed a complaint with the commission alleging that the Maine Republican Party violated campaign finance laws by using the secretive Maine Examiner site to damage the progressive candidate in the Lewiston mayoral race.
The Democratic party’s official complaint with the commission contains little direct evidence to back its claim, but since then digital clues have surfaced tying GOP Executive Director Jason Savage to the Examiner.
Officials with the Maine GOP have denied that they broke campaign finance laws. But so far they have said little about the party’s involvement with the Examiner.
Democrats assert that the GOP colluded with the site and may have violated a state law requiring groups spending money to influence an election to report the expenditure and its funders. According to the law, the expenditure must exceed $250 in a municipal election.
Wednesday, the Lewiston Sun Journal reported that it was contacted by a California man who combed through metadata from photos posted on the Examiner. The metadata shows Savage as the author of multiple photos. Maine Public confirmed the finding during its own review of metadata from photos downloaded from the site.
Metadata is a digital fingerprint of images and documents posted to a website. It can contain descriptive information about an element that makes it searchable on the internet, such as its author or keywords that describe its contents.
The metadata on the Examiner photos isn’t definitive proof that Savage authored Maine Examiner posts. However, the Maine People’s Alliance, a liberal activist group, said on its Maine Beacon website that it had linked Savage to other parts of the site, including a publicly available error log in which “jasonsavage207” appears. “Jasonsavage207” is the same as Savage’s Twitter handle.
The secretive Examiner was created in September, months before the GOP’s favored candidate, Shane Bouchard, defeated progressive activist Ben Chin by just over 140 votes in a runoff election.
The site published several negative stories about Chin. One piece included leaked emails from Chin’s campaign in which the mayoral hopeful wrote that he ran into a “bunch of racists” while canvassing voters. The Examiner headlined the story, “Leaked Email: Ben Chin Says Lewiston Voters ‘Bunch of Racists.”
Chin has not challenged the authenticity of the leaked emails, but he and others have attempted to blame the Examiner and “fake news” for his loss.
In a statement, Maine GOP chairwoman Demi Kouzounas challenged those assertions while dismissing the validity of the ethics complaint.
“First of all, the emails are real, they are not false, distorted or 'fake' as Democrats are asserting,” Kouzounas wrote. “This complaint is totally without merit. As far as the content we advertised, it is legitimate and not fabricated. The party takes its legal obligations seriously and has met them.”
It’s unclear whether the Examiner posts played a role in determining the outcome of the Lewiston mayoral race. Publicly available analytics of the site show that it had limited audience reach, although the Maine GOP attempted to amplify negative stories about Chin through its official social media accounts and through party activists.
Facebook limits the reach of posts generated by professional page accounts because they want owners to pay to boost posts. It’s also unclear if the Maine GOP paid to boost and target its Examiner posts to reach swing Lewiston voters who could have tilted the outcome of the race. If it did, such expenditures could be considered campaign expenditures.
Chin’s loss in the mayoral race last year was his second, yet the dynamics of the contests were arguably similar. In 2015 he earned the most votes on Election Day, but he ultimately lost to Bob Macdonald after Macdonald consolidated the support of the conservative candidates who didn’t advance to the runoff.
A similar dynamic could have affected the outcome this year. Chin picked up 4,239 votes on Election Day, but only 3,518 votes in the runoff – a dip of about 18 percent. Bouchard increased his vote total during the runoff, from 2,979 votes on Election Day to 3,663 votes.
But whether the Examiner actually influenced the race may not matter to the five-member Ethics Commission. The commission is charged with enforcing campaign finance laws that deal with paid attempts to influence voters.
An investigation, if authorized, could be similar to a 2010 case that arose from the 2010 gubernatorial contest. The commission fined political operative Dennis Bailey $200 after finding that he authored stories on an anonymous website attacking independent candidate Eliot Cutler.
Bailey argued that his site was a news site, and therefore exempt from campaign finance laws. But the commission argued that Bailey’s handiwork constituted campaign communications because he was working for rival candidates at the time. A federal court agreed with the commission’s findings.
The Ethics staff would conduct an investigation in the Examiner case. But the five-member commission must first vote to authorize it.
The commission’s next scheduled meeting is Feb. 22.