AUGUSTA — The executive director of the Maine Republican Party admitted to a state ethics panel that he is the owner and operator of the secretive Maine Examiner website, which published leaked emails from unsuccessful Lewiston mayoral candidate Ben Chin’s campaign.

Jason Savage’s attorneys said the Republican official runs the site “in his free time and separately and distinctly from his duties as a paid employee of the Maine Republican Party.”

In January, the Maine Democratic Party asked the Maine Ethics Commission to investigate possible campaign violations by the Republican Party and the Maine Examiner. The complaint accused the party of working with the anonymous website to spread bogus claims about Chin during Lewiston’s mayoral runoff.

DEMOCRATS SCOFF

In a letter to the ethics commission Monday, attorneys for Savage argued that because the Examiner “falls squarely within the requirements for the press exemption” and its owner is now known, there shouldn’t be any ethics concerns related to it.

Democrats scoffed at the assertion.

“There aren’t any ifs, ands or buts about it: Jason Savage is the heart of the Maine Republican Party, and he created this misleading content with the singular goal of using his party’s apparatus to amplify it,” said Phil Bartlett, the Maine Democratic Party chairman.

Bartlett said Savage “did so deceitfully, under the cloak of secrecy, and with the intent to mislead Maine people.”

“The argument they’re making now is nothing more than a sad, last-ditch Hail Mary to bail themselves out – but any Mainer will tell you that it just doesn’t pass the straight-face test. What Savage did was wrong, and he owes the people of Maine nothing short of an apology – although his resignation would be more appropriate,” Bartlett said.

Savage’s lawyers, Joshua Tardy and Colton Gross, said that Savage spent only $74 on the site, to register it with GoDaddy.com, and that it was always “a personal project of Jason Savage” unrelated to his work for the state party.

SEPARATE LETTER

The Maine Republicans said in a separate letter that “contrary to the groundless speculation” by Democrats and the media, “there was no orchestrated subterfuge” by the Republicans “to create an anonymous website to skirt campaign finance laws.”

“In fact,” the party said, “the Maine Examiner is not an instrument” of the party, which hasn’t contributed any money to it and “neither operates nor controls the Maine Examiner or its content.”

The Republicans said that until the Democrats filed a complaint, they had no knowledge of the site’s owner or operator. The Lewiston Sun Journal reported that the website’s metadata could be traced to Savage.

After the complaint was filed with the ethics panel, the Republicans said, they learned of Savage’s involvement with the Examiner “in his individual capacity, at his own expense, and outside the scope of his employment” with the party.

CHIN EMAILS

The Examiner, which began publishing in late summer, has covered a wide variety of topics, presenting news with a conservative perspective.

The stories about the Chin emails were particularly explosive because they came out in the days immediately preceding the Dec. 12 runoff election in which Republican-backed candidate Shane Bouchard defeated Chin by 142 votes. The emails were cast by the Examiner as showing that Chin thought many Lewiston residents were racists.

In the 2015 Lewiston mayoral race, the state Republicans created a website devoted to attacking Chin. It cited the party as its creator, a requirement for political campaign material under Maine law.

That site, called The Real Ben Chin, featured a number of harsh posts about Chin’s alleged words and activities over the years.

After remaining dormant for two years, that site’s Facebook page revived shortly before the 2017 election to share three of the Examiner’s stories about Chin’s emails.