AUGUSTA – One of the two people who were behind a website attacking independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler violated state election law, Maine’s ethics commission concluded Monday.
The guilty party was referred to as “John Doe II” and assessed the maximum fine of $200 for not having a disclaimer on the website. A disclaimer that the site was not paid for or authorized by any candidate or political party was missing at the time the Cutler campaign filed its complaint with the commission.
The bipartisan Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, which deliberated for more than an hour in closed session Monday, declined afterward to identify the two people responsible for the website.
The five-member commission also voted narrowly against finding John Doe II guilty of misrepresenting who was behind the website.
“We are a group of researchers, writers and journalists who are frustrated that Maine’s mainstream media is either unwilling or incapable of adequately investigating the backgrounds of candidates for higher office,” a notice on the website said.
Dick Spencer, the Portland-based lawyer representing the Cutler campaign, provided vague biographies of the website’s creators during his testimony.
“The people involved here were members of the inner circle — an immediate family member of a political candidate, and the paid political consultant of two candidates in the primary and the general election,” he said.
Commissioner Andre Duchette, a Democrat from Brunswick, said the statements on the website about the authors were misleading, but state law prohibits only misrepresentations of name or address.
“I just think it gets back to how narrowly or broadly we define that. I think, clearly, the intent here was to mislead. … Is identity the same as name and address? I would say that it is,” he said.
Commissioner Margaret Matheson, an independent from Augusta, disagreed.
“(The Legislature) specifically said those two things, so I am going to go with that reading,” she said.
The commission voted 3-2 against finding a misrepresentation violation, which carries a penalty of as much as $5,000.
Spencer’s claim that the people behind the website had spent more than $100 on it — which would have required them to file an independent expenditure report available to the public — was dismissed.
“Although they’ve told the staff they only spent $90 on the website, one of them, as we understand it, tried to sell the research on which the distortions were based to another campaign for $30,000,” Spencer said.
Commissioners said they were satisfied with the results of a staff investigation that showed only about $91 was spent building and maintaining the website.
The identity of John Doe II will likely be revealed eventually, unless the decision is appealed in court, because he was found in violation and fined.
After the ruling, Dan Billings, a Waterville-based lawyer representing the website’s operators, said he would consult with his clients before he could say whether he would file an appeal.
Billings said he was “obviously disappointed” that one of his clients faced a civil penalty of $200, but was pleased that the commission’s process so far has protected their anonymity.
Spencer also praised the ruling, saying the issue is no longer about Cutler or the campaign, but the future of Maine politics.
He said the $200 maximum fine is not much of a deterrent; the real public interest is in having people know who’s saying what about candidates.
“This will send a message to those who want to take cheap shots. … Can you hide behind an Internet wall or do you have to stand up and say it?” Spencer said.
A more detailed report on the commission’s finding will be drafted in about a month.
MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org