Looking for a little political entertainment as we head into a pivotal election cycle?

Allow me to recommend the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.

The nonpartisan ethics commission last week received a request from the Maine Democratic Party for an investigation of the Maine Examiner, a shadowy online “news” organization that specializes in taking anonymous and at times blatantly false potshots at Democratic candidates and officeholders.

Its publisher’s name? The website doesn’t say.

Editor? Nada.

Reporter? None, unless you count the “Administrator” byline under each story.

Physical address? Negative.

Phone number? Nyet.

Fingerprints of any kind? OK, now we’re getting warmer.

Since its creation last September, many have suspected that the Maine Examiner is the cyber spawn of the Maine Republican Party, a Keystone Cops version of the sophisticated Russian disinformation campaign targeting democracies the world over.

Problem is, no one could prove it. Contacted by the Bangor Daily News about the site last month, Maine Republican Party spokesman Garrett Murch reportedly said he did not know who ran the Maine Examiner and declined comment on whether it was connected to the party.

Even more silent on the matter is Jason Savage, the Maine Republican Party’s often-vociferous executive director. My emails to him and Murch on Friday, like so many other media inquiries, went unanswered.

Why the bashfulness?

Here’s my guess: It’s those fingerprints.

Last week, upon reading a story about the Maine Democrats’ ethics complaint, a California web developer by the name of Tony Perry dove into the metadata (think “digital DNA”) behind a photo posted on the Maine Examiner site.

Lo and behold, Perry discovered that the “author” of the photo was none other than Jason Savage. Perry contacted Lewiston Sun Journal staffer Steve Collins, whose story ran Wednesday.

One day later, The Maine Beacon, the Maine People’s Alliance online publication, pulled back another curtain: An error log showed that the Maine Examiner’s host account is registered under the user name “jasonsavage207.”

What’s more, the Beacon found, the website’s design template was downloaded from mythemeshop.com on Sept. 17, the same day “jasonsavage207” last visited that site. Then there’s the fact that Savage calls himself “jasonsavage207” on both his Twitter and Instagram accounts.

As the ever-watchful Sherlock Holmes once observed, “It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”

The potential problems here, for both Savage and the state party he directs, are many.

We begin with the Maine Examiner’s anonymous assault on the truth.

Last fall, just days before Lewiston’s mayoral election, the site used an out-of-context quote by Democratic candidate Ben Chin to suggest he called the city’s entire electorate a “bunch of racists.” Which, for the record, Chin did not do.

The site also botched a story about Chin getting his car towed for unpaid parking tickets, greatly exaggerating the time span over which the tickets were issued.

Chin lost the election to Republican Shane Bouchard by 145 votes.

Then in December, the Maine Examiner took aim at Sen. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, who works as a digital advertising executive for the Biddeford Journal Tribune.

The charge: Prior to his 2016 election, Chenette took out campaign ads in the newspaper for which he works and pocketed the commission.

In the real world, mind you, no credible news organization would dare make such an allegation without some kind of confirmation.

Not so for the Maine Examiner. According to Chenette, the site sent an email request for verification, by someone identified only as “Evelyn,” to one of his colleagues at the Journal Tribune.

“I want to first start by telling you that your response to this inquiry will be attributed to an ‘anonymous source’ unless you tell us differently,” the email began. “You can also message us on Facebook if you prefer not to have your answer go out through your company email server.”

Not knowing who sent the request for personnel information that would have been confidential regardless, the newspaper ignored it.

Undaunted, the Maine Examiner went with the story three days later. It included this little salacious – and utterly false – tidbit: “Sources speaking on condition of anonymity have indicated they are aware of Chenette profiting from the sale of ads to his own campaign.”

Countered the Journal Tribune beneath an op-ed column by Chenette earlier this month: “When Justin was hired, we agreed that Justin would not receive any commission for political advertising by himself and his campaign.”

Yet even then, the Maine Examiner persisted in a follow-up piece that it had “another source” backing up its already refuted story.

Think about that. An anonymous site, citing an anonymous source, wants you to believe something both the employee and his employer categorically say is not true.

That’s not journalism, folks. That is the very definition of fake news.

What makes this all so outrageous isn’t just the Maine Examiner’s willfully sloppy reporting. It’s also the flaunting of Maine election laws requiring that the people and the money behind any such an effort be disclosed publicly so voters can at least figure out who’s drowning them in late-breaking torrents of trash.

“I think it’s a harbinger of things to come,” Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett said in an interview Friday. “The danger, mind you, is that if this kind of thing goes unchecked, we’ll see more and more of it pop up and it will get more and more sophisticated.”

Meanwhile, the Republicans’ strategy appears to be deflect, duck and cover.

In a prepared statement Thursday, Maine Republican Party Chairwoman Demi Kouzounas went to great lengths to insist that the Chin emails leaked to the Maine Examiner were real, which no one disputes in the first place.

Then, in apparent reaction to the intensifying heat around this developing saga, Kouzounas put out another statement late Friday complaining, without a hint of irony, about all the “fake news” reporting on the Democrats’ “meritless complaint.”

“The Maine Examiner website was not created or operated by, or in consultation with, the Maine Republican Party,” Kouzounas said. “The Maine Examiner is not an asset of the Maine Republican Party, and The Maine Republican Party has not funded it.”

Nice try, Madam Chairwoman. Now what say you to the fact that the Maine Examiner has your executive director’s name and digital handle all over it?

The bottom line here is that Savage, who also claimed Thursday that the Democrats’ complaint is “completely without merit,” still has a ton of explaining to do.

And the ethics commission, which next meets on Feb. 22, is the one body that can compel Savage, via subpoena if necessary, to finally come clean about those pesky little fingerprints.

I can’t wait to see how the Maine Examiner covers that one.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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