The Portland Press Herald is seeking to unseal records in a high-profile court case involving a political operative who was fined by Maine’s ethics commission for failing to disclose the creators of a website that attacked a gubernatorial candidate.

The newspaper is requesting that the public be given access to documents and hundreds of emails that have been subpoenaed by attorneys working for former gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler. The newspaper is also requesting that all motions, legal arguments and statements that are now under seal be made public.

Cutler’s attorneys have the documents, but an attorney for Thom Rhoads, the husband of Rosa Scarcelli, another 2010 gubernatorial candidate, has filed a motion seeking to keep them confidential during the discovery phase of the lawsuit.

Many of the documents and emails involve Rhoads and communications within the Scarcelli campaign.

The newspaper filed a memo Tuesday requesting that U.S. Magistrate Judge Margaret Kravchuk deny motions for confidentiality by Rhoads and make public all sealed documents. It is also seeking intervenor status in the case.

The Cutler Files website, which no longer exists, was highly critical of Cutler during last year’s general election. At the time, it was anonymous. Under legal pressure from Cutler, Dennis Bailey, a veteran political consultant, later admitted to creating the site, and Rhoads admitted that he provided the site with research on Cutler.

The Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices fined Bailey $200 for failing to disclose the names of people behind the website.

Bailey appealed the fine. In March, he filed a lawsuit contending that the state violated his rights because anonymous speech is protected by the First Amendment. The Civil Liberties Union of Maine is providing legal assistance to Bailey.

Jonathan Piper, an attorney for the Press Herald, argued in his letter to the court that and open and public court system is a hallmark of the justice system, even the most mundane cases involving private citizens. This case, by contrast, involves high-profile public figures and the subject is state election law

Piper urged the court to “reject the attempt by some of the parties to this litigation to cloak large swaths of this case in secrecy.”

Jamie Wagner, Rhoads’ attorney, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Bailey’s attorney, John Paterson, said in an interview that the newspaper’s involvement in the case is “troubling.”

The case is in its pretrial, fact-gathering phase, he said, and the documents in question have yet to be used by either side as part of a legal argument in court. Many of the documents are completely unrelated to the case, he said.

“We’re simply seeking to protect these documents in the interest of avoiding embarrassment to people who are not a party to this lawsuit,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: [email protected]