December 26, 2010

Cutler Files presented right-to-know dilemma

Ethics regulators had wanted to give the website's creators time to appeal a ruling before their identities became public.

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

(Continued from page 2)

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Political consultant Dennis Bailey, above, says he is one of two people behind The Cutler Files, a website that criticized independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, below.

Press Herald file photos

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"Every article we posted contained numerous links to the source material," he wrote. "There were no wild, unsubstantiated accusations typical of smear tactics. Instead, everything was documented."

He also distanced the site from Shawn Moody, the former independent candidate for governor from Gorham whose campaign Bailey managed at the time the site was launched. In October, Bailey was working for Moody when he denied to the Press Herald that he was involved with The Cutler Files.

"I regret that I couldn't be completely open, but I did it solely to protect (Moody) from any negative fallout," wrote Bailey on his blog. "I'd take a bullet for the guy, and in some ways I feel like I did."

Bailey also blamed Cutler for drawing attention to the site by bringing the ethics case.

Cutler's attorney, Richard Spencer, argued to the commission that the public had a right to know who was behind the serious charges leveled on the site. And since that didn't happen, it's important to set a precedent for how these types of websites will be handled in the future.

The site, which called Cutler "a phony and a fraud," criticized his career as an attorney, his work for the federal government and his personal appearance. It also contained satire, such as offering a ransom for a photo of Cutler in a "barn coat," and alleging that a college-age Cutler had appeared in a photo with movie star Natalie Wood.

Bailey, on Friday, acknowledged some parts of the site detracted from what he says the authors wanted to draw attention to -- Cutler's time on the board of failed mortgage company Thornburg, his career in China and controversies when he was a U.S. budget official.

"I have some regrets about how it turned out," Bailey said. "We would have done some things differently, if we had thought it through."

THE PUBLIC'S RIGHT TO KNOW

Sigmund Schutz, an attorney who has represented Maine newspapers in Freedom of Access cases, said the state should have revealed the name of The Cutler Files author found in violation of ethics rules.

He cited a recent U.S. Supreme Court case in which those who signed a petition in Washington state were found not to have a right to keep their names anonymous. When it comes to The Cutler Files, Schutz said, the public has a right to know who has been found in violation by a state agency.

"Here you have a state agency taking enforcement action and preventing the public from knowing who has been penalized," he said. He said the burden to keep the names secret should fall on the creators of the website, not the state.

Billings said there is no right for the public to know the identities of those who choose to engage in anonymous political speech. It's up to voters to decide whether to believe what they read on a site like The Cutler Files, he said.

"I trust the voters," he said. "I think it's a legitimate piece of information that voters can consider when judging the credibility of a political message."

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

scover@mainetoday.com

 

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