AUGUSTA — The Maine ethics commission opted Thursday to drop a possible investigation into allegations that a top state Republican official behaved improperly when he created a conservative website without disclosing his role.

That site, the Maine Examiner, drew attention in December when it revealed internal campaign emails from Lewiston mayoral hopeful Ben Chin that were widely shared in the days leading up to a Dec. 12 runoff that saw Chin lose narrowly to Republican Shane Bouchard.

Kate Knox, a Democratic lawyer, told the commission the Examiner’s stories about Chin may have been “fundamental to the fact that Ben Chin lost” and certainly played “a big part” in the final days of the race.

The Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices voted 3-2 on Thursday to not pursue a complaint by the Maine Democratic Party that Jason Savage, executive director of the state Republicans, might have violated campaign finance rules by failing to report his involvement with the Examiner.

Maine Republican Party Executive Director Jason Savage delivering a “Fake News Alert” last year discussing a story his party thought failed to meet the standards of good journalism. Image from Maine Republican Party video

The swing vote belonged to the five-member panel’s chairwoman, Margaret Matheson of Augusta, who backed the decision not to pursue the complaint despite calling Savage’s lack of disclosure disturbing.

She said Savage’s decision to operate secretly in creating, overseeing and writing for the Examiner was “not a great thing to do,” but she was not convinced a probe would find anything more.

Demi Kouzounas, chairwoman of the state Republican party, said the commission “proved its integrity today, dismissing baseless accusations.”

From the beginning,” she said, “we told the people of Maine this charge was without merit, and today we were vindicated.”

Savage, who talked openly about his role for the first time at Thursday’s session, called it a victory for free speech.

Four of the five commission members expressed serious reservations about Savage failing to identify himself as the operator of the Examiner.

“There’s something unsavory about this,” said Bradford Pattershall, a commissioner from Freeport.

Pattershall added that the publicity surrounded Savage’s actions ought to help get the word out that others should not follow his lead.

The two dissenting commissioners said they wanted ethics staff to further investigate whether Savage acted independently and not with the Republican Party.

William Lee III, a Waterville lawyer who pushed hardest for a probe, said Savage’s secrecy about the Examiner raised questions. His connection to it was not known until a California expert found Savage’s name in the site’s metadata.

“If there’s nothing to hide, why hide?” Lee asked. “What’s the reason for keeping it secret?”

Savage said he created the Examiner in September because he enjoys writing and wanted a venue to pursue it. He said it was not all about politics, insisting his anonymous stories touched on “a lot of different things.”

Savage said he kept his name off the site because he hoped it would become “a larger, more robust entity” if he could avoid attacks that would inevitably follow if “certain people” knew about his role. The Examiner, he said, is a model for a “community-based news” site.

Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett said in a prepared statement that despite the panel’s decision, “it is clear to us that they were universally disturbed by Savage’s behavior, skeptical of his explanations and disapproving of his anonymity.”

“As a result of this complaint,” Bartlett said, “the Maine Democratic Party was able to drive Savage out of the shadows, hold him accountable to the public for his disturbing actions, and shine a bright light on the underhanded tactics that he and the Maine Republican Party are willing to engage in.”

Savage insisted that whatever work he did for the Examiner was on his own time.

“I was very careful in every way” to “have a line between my activities and the party,” Savage said, pointing out that his work schedule varied widely from week to week. He said he does not have a clear schedule, just a requirement he gets the job done.

Savage is still publishing on the Examiner’s website. But he may go further still.

Savage said he wants to publish a book “on all sorts of ways to restore integrity in state government.”

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