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.

The affidavit said the motivation for the site is "purely personal," and that the idea did not emerge until this summer.

Spencer told the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices that it should not accept the affidavit at face value and should instead launch an investigation. If the commission finds the website's creators have spent more than $100, it should require them to file an independent expenditure report, he said.

Spencer said Maine voters have the right to know how much has been spent on the website, who is paying for it and whether they have been acting in concert with a political campaign, political party or political action committee.

More than a month ago, Wayne interviewed Dennis Bailey, president of Portland-based Savvy Inc., about the site. Bailey, a former reporter for The Portland Press Herald and the campaign spokesman for Rosa Scarcelli, a Democratic candidate for governor in the primary, said he was not subpoenaed.

He said he called the commission because a member of Cutler's campaign staff had accused him of being the author of The Cutler Files and he wanted to make it clear that he is not.

Bailey said he was willing to testify under oath, but Wayne never got back to him.

Controversy over the website doesn't help Cutler politically because it gives the site more public attention, Cutler said in an interview Monday. He said he raised the issue with the ethics commission because he wants to protect the integrity of Maine's election laws. Such campaign tactics are "poisoning" the state's political culture, he said.

The website tries to poke holes in Cutler's resume and attacks his character, calling him a "phony and a fraud."

Cutler said it's particularly upsetting that the site holds him responsible for the deaths of 39 people in Georgia in 1977 when a dam collapsed.

While Cutler was working in the Office of Management and Budget in the Carter administration, according to the site, OMB officials delayed the paperwork that was necessary to release the funds to pay for the dam inspection, despite warnings that many of the nation's private dams could fail.

The website details the horrors of the dam collapse, including witnesses' accounts and a video of the destruction.

"It makes me sick that people will do this," Cutler said.

He said he's almost certain who is behind the site, but he would not identify the authors.

"Until I prove it, I am not going to lower myself to that level of integrity," he said.

The Portland Press Herald has been contacted by several people who anonymously identify Bailey, Scarcelli and her husband, Thomas Rhoads, a writer and researcher, as authors of The Cutler Files.

Scarcelli said in an interview that she and her husband have nothing to do with the website and that the rumors of their involvement are offensive. She said she hasn't even seen the site.

"I have absolutely nothing to do with The Cutler Files, and I haven't even looked at the website," she said. "Eliot Cutler is playing the victim, and people in Maine want him to man up."

In an e-mail to the Press Herald on Tuesday, Rhoads said: "I can unequivocally state that I am not the author, owner or creator of The Cutler Files, nor did I post any information on it or any other website. I have not been contacted or interviewed by the ethics commission. I don't know why my name is being brought into this. It's pure rumor."

Anonymous speech is constitutionally protected, said Dan Billings, an attorney who has been hired by The Cutler Files' authors to represent them before the ethics commission. During colonial times and the early decades of the United States, writers often adopted pseudonyms to attack politicians in essays published in pamphlets and newspapers.

In today's world of blogs and anonymous comments on newspaper websites, anonymous speech is even more accepted, he said.

"On the Internet, there is even more of a tradition and expectation that people can speak both freely and anonymously," he said.

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell contributed to this story.

 

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