The Maine Examiner, an Internet news site with anonymous reporters and undisclosed owners, describes itself as “a small group of Mainers who simply publish Maine news, trends, and interesting pieces about you, the people of Maine.”
The Maine Democratic Party has other suspicions. This week, the Democrats asked the state ethics commission to investigate whether the conservative website is secretly working in conjunction with the state Republican Party and has violated campaign finance laws.
“We are deeply concerned with the dangerous precedent this type of anonymous communication could set in Maine,” the party said in a complaint filed Tuesday with the ethics panel, an independent agency that can levy fines and refer cases to the state attorney general.
The Democratic Party complained to the panel following a barrage of controversial attacks by the Examiner against Lewiston mayoral candidate Ben Chin, a progressive Democrat, leading up to the Dec. 12 election.
The Examiner’s stories accused Chin of describing Lewiston’s voters as racists, keeping a convicted pedophile on his campaign staff, supporting “revolution,” and accruing years of unpaid parking tickets.
All the claims are false or misleading, Chin and his staff have said.
Chin lost the election by 145 votes to a candidate he had outpolled, 42 percent to 29 percent, in a five-person preliminary race in November. The 32-year-old Bates College graduate blamed his razor-thin defeat partly on the Examiner’s stories, some of which were based on leaked emails and were shared with a vastly broader audience by the state GOP on its Facebook page.
The state GOP’s executive director, Jason Savage, also shared Examiner stories on his personal Facebook page.
Savage appears to be directly linked to content in the Examiner, according to a California website developer who investigated the connection. The developer, Tony Perry of Oakland, told the Globe he used metadata to trace three of the Examiner’s photos to Savage. The photos either were given by Savage to the Examiner or posted by himself on the site, Perry said.
The Lewiston Sun Journal first reported Perry’s discovery after he reached out to the newspaper.
In addition, error logs show that the Examiner account is hosted by a user named “jasonsavage207,” according to the Maine Beacon, an on-line blog for the Maine People’s Alliance, where Chin works as political engagement director.
Savage uses the same handle — “jasonsavage207” — for his Instagram account. He has been a campaign staffer for Republican Governor Paul LePage and previously worked under LePage at the Marden’s chain of surplus stores.
In December, the state GOP’s communications director, Garrett Murch, told the Bangor Daily News he did not know who ran the Examiner, whose ownership is not disclosed in a website registry.
Savage could not be reached for comment this week, and the Maine Examiner did not reply to an email request for comment. However, state Republicans hit back against the allegations Thursday.
“The [Chin] emails are real. They are not false, distorted, or ‘fake,’ as Democrats are asserting,” said Dr. Demi Kouzounas, the state Republican Party chairwoman said. “This complaint is totally without merit. As far as the content we advertised, it is legitimate and not fabricated.”
The ethics commission is scheduled to meet Feb. 22 and might discuss the complaint at that time, said Paul Lavin, the panel’s assistant director. The panel of five “citizen-members” is appointed by the governor and consists of two Democrats, two Republicans, and one independent, he said.
The state Democratic Party, in the complaint, asked the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices to investigate whether the Examiner worked closely with the state GOP.
“It’s very troubling. It’s another sign that they’re willing to do anything to try to accomplish their electoral goals,” said state Democratic chairman Phil Bartlett. “I certainly hope that Republican leaders and candidates in the state of Maine will stand up and say this is not the kind of politics we want. It’s disgraceful.”
The complaint noted that the state Republican Party listed seven “operating expenses” for Facebook advertising between Dec. 6 and 13, a period that closely follows the Examiner’s seven stories on Chin.
The Maine GOP recorded no other Facebook ad expenses for the quarter stretching from October through December, the Democrats said.
The Democrats also asserted that the Examiner appeared to have violated a state law that prohibits an “independent expenditure” for any communication “that expressly advocates the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate.”
The Examiner does not enjoy a press exemption from this requirement, the complaint said, because the company does not identify who owns and controls its site. Examiner stories generally carry the byline of “Administrator.”
Such anonymity becomes dangerous, the Democrats said, when readers do not know who is behind the attacks. Examiner stories routinely did not include a response from Chin or other Democrats who had been targeted.
In a Jan. 17 post, the Examiner dismissed the argument that anonymity is a concern.
“What those attacking us would like to do is ignore the facts in our stories and attack us personally to try to silence us,” the post read. “We will not be silenced. We will continue publishing fact-based news and content.”
The Democrats, who take issue with that description, urged the ethics panel to promote transparency.
“In order to make judgments about the veracity and value of stories covering Maine candidates, Mainers must understand who is behind the communication,” the complaint said. “In the absence of required disclosures, Mainers do not know whether organizations are run and funded by their neighbors, a political organization or campaign, or a foreign government.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.