Finally, the other shoe dropped. Finally, the truth was confirmed. Finally, we can turn the page on one of the sorriest chapters in Maine’s mostly proud political history.

Now that the second perpetrator of the sleazy election website, the Cutler Files, has admitted his involvement, and the state’s ethics commission has officially found his partner-in-deception to be a violator of campaign finance laws, there seems to be little merit in perpetuating the website’s hold on the public’s attention.

But we would be remiss if we failed to condemn the crude injustice that was done to independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler when political consultant Dennis Bailey and Thom Rhoads, husband of unsuccessful candidate for governor Rosa Scarcelli, set out to derail Cutler’s campaign with a relentless Internet assault on his character, his background and his qualifications to serve as Maine’s top elected official.

Bailey continues to claim that the Cutler Files was a legitimate project, even though he and Rhoads went to absurd lengths to hide their involvement. We would describe the website more as disgraceful than legitimate or useful, but we’ll play along by posing a question: If they truly believed they were distributing fair-minded, accurate information about a major candidate in a crucial statewide election, why didn’t Bailey and Rhoads identify themselves and take responsibility for the material they were promulgating?

OFFERING EXCUSES

Bailey has said he didn’t want to compromise the candidate who was paying him a consulting fee, Shawn Moody. Rhoads might argue that he wanted to protect his wife, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for governor in the June primary and who is widely believed to have future political ambitions (on that point, Scarcelli’s disingenuous claims of ignorance as to her husband’s activities do nothing to enhance her stature as a potential candidate for high office).

But if Bailey and Rhoads cloaked themselves in secrecy out of concern for others, couldn’t they have shown more consideration for those they were trying to protect by avoiding involvement with such a deplorable undertaking in the first place? We can only conclude that they knew full well they were shoveling garbage and simply hoped they could evade accountability.

Shortly after the Cutler Files made its debut at the end of August, the Cutler campaign filed a complaint with the ethics commission, citing state law that requires a website promoting the defeat of a candidate to disclose who is providing the information. The Cutler camp was right, it turned out, and the commission slapped Bailey with the maximum fine allowed by law, $200.

The commission ruled that Rhoads was not in violation of the law and therefore not subject to a fine. Which brings us to the ethics commission, which did not distinguish itself in the handling of this situation.

For starters, the commission demonstrated no urgency in dealing with Cutler’s complaint, which seemed to be filed in plenty of time – Aug. 30 – to allow a resolution before the Nov. 2 election.

The commission did not reveal the results of its investigation into the complaint until December – long after now-Gov. Paul LePage had prevailed over Cutler in a hotly contested election that was decided by a razor-thin margin. Were unfair attacks of the Cutler Files – unleashed constantly and anonymously – a factor in Cutler’s defeat?

VOTERS INFLUENCED

We’ll never know, but it seems reasonable to speculate that some voters who were influenced by the website might not have been if they had known the source of the information.

The ethics commission could have gone a long way toward protecting the integrity of the election by exposing the Cutler Files and those who were behind it before voters went to the polls.

Then, to add insult to injury, when the commission finally concluded that the website violated election laws, the commission’s staff decided to let Bailey and Rhoads remain anonymous – Rhoads because he had not violated the law and Bailey because his attorney argued that anonymous political discourse was protected by the First Amendment.

Instead of identifying the website operators in the interest of transparency and common decency, the agency charged with upholding the integrity of Maine’s election laws allowed individuals who made a mockery of the term “clean elections” to continue hiding from the public.

Eventually, Bailey and Rhoads confessed, in contexts favorable to themselves, but not because of any pressure applied by the ethics commission. Inexcusable.

The whole episode was inexcusable. Shameful. Disgraceful. Embarrassing. We could go on, but you get the idea.

The Cutler Files website was an attack not only on Eliot Cutler but also on the people of Maine, who have taken justifiable pride in their efforts to establish a standard of decency for the state’s electoral process that others would be well-served to emulate. Let’s hope this misstep was an aberration that will never be repeated.