Ethics Commission Will Not Investigate Whether GOP Worked With Attack Website

Feb 22, 2018

The Maine Ethics Commission voted not to investigate whether the Maine Republican Party violated campaign finance laws for an attack website operated in secret by its executive director.

The vote was in response to a complaint by the Maine Democratic Party, which asked the commission to explore whether Jason Savage was operating as an agent of the party, a determination that could trigger a violation of campaign finance and disclosure laws, while operating the Maine Examiner website.

The Examiner controversy follows a national trend in which political activists are increasingly using websites cloaked as news to amplify and lend credibility to partisan messaging. 

Last year, the Associated Press discovered that the Republican Governors Association was behind The Free Telegraph, a website promoting GOP governors while framing Democrats in a negative light. There was no disclosure on the site until AP asked the RGA about it. Similarly, Politico reported that Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, of California, used campaign funds to run The California Republican, a site that bills itself as a news and media company delivering the "best of US, California, and Central Valley news, sports and analysis." 

Savage’s involvement with the Maine Examiner also remained a secret until the ethics complaint, which was spurred in part by the discovery of metadata, or digital fingerprints, on photos he posted to the website.

Savage’s attorney argued that the GOP activist operated the site on his own time. The Maine GOP has said it had no knowledge of the website and did not fund it.

But Kate Knox, an attorney representing the Maine Democratic Party, argued that Savage’s high position at the GOP raised questions about his claim that he operated the website independently. Additionally, she noted that the site was active publishing negative stories against Democratic politicians and candidates last fall and essentially performing the same messaging functions as the party.

“He was doing exactly the same activities he would have been doing with the party,” Knox said.

In particular, she said the Examiner’s posts focused on a hotly contested Lewiston mayoral race — a race of keen interest to the GOP and Democrats.

Commissioner Richard Nass, the Republican appointee to the board, was skeptical the commission could determine whether Savage and the GOP worked in concert.

Josh Tardy, an attorney representing Savage, said the complaint was an attempt by Democrats to use the Lewiston mayoral race loss as an excuse to probe the inner workings of the GOP.

“The fact of the matter is ... this is a publication that has existed before the election and after the election,” Tardy said. “I don’t really know what else you need to know.”

Nass also questioned whether the commission could disprove that Savage acted alone.

“We’re not the FBI,” he said.

Commissioner William Lee, the Democrat on the commission, asked Tardy why Savage didn’t disclose his involvement with the site until the metadata was revealed. Tardy didn’t answer the question directly, instead saying his client had come forward and is ready to cooperate.

Savage told the commission that he was careful to keep his party duties and Examiner posts separate.

“I like writing. I like informing people,” Savage said.

Democrats argued that Savage’s activities and the party’s were essentially the same, especially given that his negative posts in the Lewiston mayoral race were shared and amplified by the GOP on Facebook. Savage also acknowledged that he was involved in the party’s decision to share his Examiner stories on Facebook.

When Savage was asked why he didn’t disclose his involvement, he said he didn’t want to taint the Examiner as a partisan project and that he wanted the website grow. Commissioner Lee said Savage’s decision not to disclose raised questions about whether Savage’s activities were truly separate from the party.

Ultimately, the majority of the commission decided not to dig deeper to determine whether members of the GOP and Savage cooperated on the Examiner project. The decision means that the ethics staff will not request documents from Savage and the GOP to determine if the Examiner project was a joint venture that broke campaign finance or disclosure laws.

The decision was cheered by Republicans, who claimed that it reaffirmed Savage's right to free speech.

Following the decision, the Maine Democratic Party issued a statement saying that "Although the Ethics Commission declined to investigate further, it is clear to us that they were universally disturbed by Savage’s behavior, skeptical of his explanations, and disapproving of his anonymity." The statement also said that the Republican Party should "consider themselves on notice."

This post was updated at 1:24 p.m.