Jason Savage, right, and his attorney, Josh Tardy, answer questions at a Maine Ethics Commission hearing in Augusta on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. Credit: Michael Shepherd

AUGUSTA, Maine — After lengthy debate, state ethics regulators declined Thursday to launch an investigation into ties between a once-anonymous “news” site and the Maine Republican Party after a top party official admitted to owning the site independent of the party.

Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, admitted last week to owning the Maine Examiner, which gained prominence after running anonymous, negative articles about Lewiston mayoral candidate Ben Chin ahead of his loss in a December runoff.

In January, the Maine Democratic Party filed a complaint with the Maine Ethics Commission, saying state Republicans may have violated disclosure provisions in state law and asking for an investigation into the site, which the commission rejected in a 3-2 vote.

The commission’s two Republicans voted down a probe after more than three hours of testimony and debate on Thursday. The two Democrats on the panel opposed them. Chairwoman Margaret Matheson, an Augusta independent, cast the deciding vote.

Commissioner Richard Nass, an Acton Republican, said an investigation was unlikely to yield more information and would send the commission down “a blind alley.” But Commissioner William Lee, a Waterville Democrat, said not investigating would create a “danger” that party officials could continue to create off-the-books sites.

Savage responded to the complaint by saying he was the owner of the site and that he operated it “in his free time.” The Maine Republican Party shared Maine Examiner articles on social media and claimed that it had no knowledge of Savage’s ties to the site until January, although Savage and a party attorney said Thursday that he participated in decisions to share the posts.

Democrats alleged that Republicans may have violated laws forcing entities making independent expenditures above $250 in a municipal election to report them and disclose information about funders. Republicans argued they reported required expenses.

Savage has said that the Maine Examiner only cost $74 to operate — the price of registering the site’s domain name — and that he falls into an exemption from disclosure in Maine law that is intended for the news media. That shields items such as editorials from disclosure.

After the decision, Maine Republican Party Chairwoman Demi Kouzounas said in a statement that her party was “vindicated.” Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett said despite losing, his 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 his counterparts’ tactics.

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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...