Data embedded in the anonymous “news” website The Maine Examiner has been linked to a top Maine Republican Party official. Credit: Contributed

AUGUSTA, Maine — A top Maine Republican Party official admitted to state ethics watchdogs that he is behind a once-anonymous website that may have helped tip a 2017 mayoral race in Lewiston, but he said it was “not related” to his work for the party.

The argument from Jason Savage, the state party’s executive director, comes after Democrats requested an ethics investigation into the Maine Examiner last month, but his lawyer argues that he wasn’t required to report his work.

The website gained attention in the run-up to the December mayoral runoff in Lewiston, when it posted several negative articles about progressive activist Ben Chin. One contained real, leaked campaign emails in which Chin said he ran into a “bunch of racists” while stumping.

Chin ended up losing narrowly to Republican Shane Bouchard in the runoff, in which both state parties were doing organizing work. Democrats requested an investigation of the Maine Republican Party’s involvement with the site in January. Just after that, the Sun Journal found Savage’s name in data embedded on the Maine Examiner.

The Democrats’ call for an investigation alleged that Republicans may have violated state laws forcing entities making independent expenditures above $250 in a municipal election to report them and disclose information about funders. After that, Republicans said they reported required expenses.

Savage didn’t address his involvement until a Feb. 12 letter to the commission from his attorney, Josh Tardy, who said Savage is the “sole owner” of the site and argued that the Maine Examiner falls into a exemption from disclosure that exists for the media. He said Savage has only spent $74 on the site.

Maine Republican Party attorneys said in another letter that the party didn’t know of Savage’s involvement in the site until after the Democrats’ ethics complaint, although the party notes that it paid Facebook to promote Maine Examiner articles during the mayoral race.

In a statement, Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett called Savage “the heart of the Maine Republican Party” and said he “created this misleading content with the singular goal of using his party’s apparatus to amplify it.” He also called for Savage’s resignation.

The case will be a quandary for the five-member commission when it meets to discuss Democrats’ request on Feb. 22. In another Maine case, a federal court ruled in 2012 that a political operative’s anonymous site about a former gubernatorial candidate wasn’t journalism because the operative was working for a rival candidate in the 2010 election.

In a memo, Jonathan Wayne, the executive director of the five-person panel, said while it should give “serious consideration” to Savage’s claim of independence from the party, they “may wish to be cautious about accepting an argument or creating a precedent that could lead to an accountability gap.”

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...