October 27, 2010

Website attacking Cutler still a mystery

MaineToday Media experts are trying to identify its creators, and the state ethics commission is investigating.

From staff reports

Somebody is monkeying around with our politics.

With a gubernatorial race marred by complaints about negative advertising and campaigning, it may take a rock 'n' roll trivia buff to get to the bottom of the most talked about dirty trick thus far.

Who is Michael Blessing?

A. A pseudonym for Michael Nesmith, a founding member of the 1960s rock band The Monkees, which also had a hit TV show?

B. A person or persons throwing stones from behind the Internet wall of anonymity?

C. The person or collective persona of those who created and posted the anti-Eliot Cutler website "The Secret File on Eliot Cutler."

The correct answer is all three.

Nesmith, who had a hit song about always "monkeying around," sometimes uses the alias Michael Blessing.

That is also the name used to register a website popularly known as "The Cutler Files," which tears down the independent gubernatorial candidate for everything from his government service to his legal career to his wealth.

Cutler, a Cape Elizabeth lawyer, says the website is defamatory and violates Maine's "expressed advocacy" law regulating messaging that advocates for or against a particular candidate. At his request, cutlerfiles.com is now the focus of a Maine ethics commission investigation, which is expected to wrap up at some point after voters have elected a winner.

That doesn't matter to Cutler, who says he's pressing the issue to make a point against anonymous insults and a sullying of the election process. He and his staff argue that they have little to gain by continuing to call public attention to a website that contains only negative information about the candidate.

So who might be behind it?

MaineToday Media has employed two Internet experts to investigate who might be behind the creation of the website. Thus far, they have determined that it is hosted by a private registrar in Scottsdale, Ariz., which serves people who do not want their identities revealed.

Someone calling himself Michael Blessing told MaineToday Media's Susan Cover in an e-mail in late September that several people are behind the site, and that their activities are protected free speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

"Mr. Cutler and his lawyers are simply trying to censor free speech and block the dissemination of accurate, truthful information," the person wrote in the e-mail.

The people behind the site apparently aren't in favor of any particular candidate, they simply want Cutler to lose.

The ethics commission's investigation is focused on how much the website's creators have spent building the site, including research, and whether any party committee or political action committee authorized it.

The commission's executive director, Jonathan Wayne, who is leading the investigation, said Monday that he probably won't report back to the commission until after Tuesday's election.

He said he is requesting various types of information and may issue a subpoena to compel people to give him information. He said the commission has instructed him to proceed confidentially and shield documents from public view when possible.

From a legal standpoint, it appears that the issue before the commission is not the identity of the website's creators, but whether they violated a provision of the state's election law that requires the reporting of independent expenditures of more than $100.

In a letter to the commission on Oct. 19, Cutler's attorney, Richard Spencer, focused on the money trail, not the constitutional issues of anonymous speech.

According to an anonymous affidavit filed Oct. 14 by the site's creators, the website had spent a total of only $92.54, and the money had come from personal funds.

The affidavit said two people are involved in the website, while others provided suggestions that were incorporated into the content. It said that nobody was paid for their work, and that most of the research information was obtained for free on the Internet.

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