AUGUSTA — The Maine Democratic Party filed an ethics complaint Tuesday accusing the state’s Republican Party of working hand-in-hand to spread bogus claims through a secretive website masquerading as a news organization.

Democrats asked Maine’s ethics commission to investigate possible campaign finance violations by the Maine Examiner and Maine’s Republican Party in their publication of “fake news stories” about Lewiston mayoral candidate Ben Chin before December’s runoff election.

“To put it plainly, this is the worst of politics: pushing misleading or outright false claims while hiding behind the safety of anonymity,” Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett said in a prepared statement.

Bartlett said the Republican Party “decries fake news, but then happily turns around and peddles it to achieve their political goals” by spreading tales from the online Maine Examiner, which provides no information about its ownership or leadership.

Neither state Republican leaders nor the Examiner could be reached for comment Tuesday. The Examiner began publishing in mid-September. It is not listed as a business organization with the secretary of state.

In a Jan. 17 piece on its website, the Examiner said it “may produce some news content that liberals and progressives don’t want you to read, but we get our facts straight and we provide the proof to back up our claims.”

It got little notice, however, until it published seven stories about Chin in early December that delved into, among other issues, internal Chin campaign emails and parking tickets that Chin failed to pay – stories then shared by the Maine Republican Party and its executive director, Jason Savage.

Chin, the political director of the Maine People’s Alliance, narrowly lost the runoff election to Shane Bouchard, a Republican-backed candidate the Examiner described in its pieces as “a Lewiston small-business owner.”

The Democratic complaint suggests Maine’s Republican Party coordinated its activity with the Examiner.

It also questioned whether the anonymous people behind the Examiner or the Republican Party violated campaign finance laws by neglecting to report independent expenditures meant to boost Bouchard’s chances at the polls on Dec. 12.

The Democrats’ complaint said the party is “deeply concerned with the dangerous precedent” that anonymous sites could establish.

“In order to make judgments about the veracity and value of stories covering Maine candidates,” the six-page complaint said, “Mainers must understand who is behind the communication.”

Without disclosures the Democrats argue are required, “Mainers do not know whether organizations are run and funded by their neighbors, a political organization or campaign, or a foreign government.”

Bartlett said that “whoever is behind the Maine Examiner” should not “cower behind a mask of secrecy.”

“Mainers don’t hide their faces – they stand up, speak, and own their beliefs,” he said.

The Maine Examiner says only that it consists of “a small group of Mainers who simply publish Maine news, trends and interesting pieces about you, the people of Maine.”

Bartlett said that the state’s Republicans “should be upfront with the people of Maine and tell them whether or not they are purposefully using this bogus website to advance their partisan agenda.”

The Examiner said last week that “what those attacking us would like to do is ignore the facts in our stories and attack us personally to try to silence us.

“We will not be silenced,” it said. “We will continue publishing fact-based news and content. The political power brokers in Maine will not like a lot of what we publish. But it will be factual and it will be verified.”

The state’s campaign finance law exempts media organizations – which operate with First Amendment protection – but it is not a blanket exemption.

The law requires that eligible media identify those “who own, control and operate” a broadcast station or publication. It also adds that media owned or controlled “by any political party, political action committee or ballot question committee” or by a candidate has to file mandatory campaign finance information.

The Democratic complaint said the Examiner “cannot satisfy this requirement because it continues to conceal who controls and funds the organization.”

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