Eliot Cutler sits in a courtroom at the Hancock County Unified Criminal Court in Ellsworth on Thursday. . Cutler pleaded guilty to four felony counts of possessing child pornography. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

ELLSWORTH, Maine — The day before Maine’s 2010 gubernatorial election, Eliot Cutler stood on the verge of capping a charmed career by fulfilling a dream of his Bangor boyhood.

Cutler, a wealthy environmental lawyer, bounded into a rally in Portland’s Monument Square, where former Gov. Angus King called him “the man we need.” The surging independent exhorted a crowd of hundreds who had rallied behind him as a main alternative to Republican Paul LePage.

“How does it feel to be on the verge of an amazing victory?” the Portland Press Herald quoted Cutler as saying. 

He fell fewer than 9,800 votes shy of knocking off LePage in a historic election that has shaped Maine politics since then. The stakes look even larger now. 

Eliot Cutler walks to the Hancock County Unified Criminal Court in Ellsworth with his lawyer Walter McKee (right) on Thursday.

On Thursday, Cutler, now 76, stood in a blue blazer and khaki pants before a judge in Ellsworth, speaking in a deep but often hushed voice to accept a plea deal after police said they found more than 140,000 images and videos of child pornography on his electronic devices, including 84,000 of those under age 12 and at least one as young as 4 being raped by an adult. 

Prosecutors say Cutler, who will serve nine months in jail, began compiling it in November 2014, the same month he appeared on Maine’s gubernatorial ballot for a second time. 

His arrest prompted a sudden fall from a lofty perch in the state’s civic arena, ending the public life of a man who rose early in his career due to intellect but who never shook the impression that he viewed himself as the smartest person in the room.

It also shocked former allies who have mostly avoided speaking publicly since his arrest. Many are left with questions about how he could carry such a horrifying secret. 

“I failed to meet my obligations to myself, to my family, to my friends and to civilized society,” he read from a one-page statement in court on Thursday. “I am embarrassed, ashamed and deeply, deeply sorry.”

Eliot Cutler grimaces while listening to the prosecutor give descriptions his child pornography during a hearing at the Hancock County Unified Criminal Court in Ellsworth on Thursday. Cutler pleaded guilty to four felony counts of possessing child pornography. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Cutler, who was born in 1946 in Bangor to prominent parents, including his mother, Kay, who told an interviewer in 2002 that her son wanted to be governor from an early age.

He went to Harvard University and became an aide to U.S. Sen. Edmund S. Muskie, a legendary figure in state Democratic politics. After seven years with Muskie, where he helped to write key measures including the Clean Air Act, he landed a job in President Jimmy Carter’s budget office. He left in 1980 — only at age 33 — to start a private-sector career.

That was what made him wealthy. Cutler worked on environmental issues, helping to shape the 1995 construction of the Denver International Airport. His law firm merged in 2000 with the Washington-based legal giant Akin Gump, and he became known later for his work for the firm in China representing companies that wanted to enter outside markets.

He entered the 2010 campaign as a figure with little name recognition outside political circles, but his largely self-funded run saw a late surge as Democrat Libby Mitchell faded in a five-way race. In part due to his history as a Democrat, he became the top LePage alternative.

His 2014 run was a different story. LePage and then-U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat from Maine’s 2nd District, had firm grips on the electorate. Cutler mustered 8 percent of votes six days after an awkward news conference where he called victory a longshot but did not leave the race. King, by that time a senator, switched his endorsement to Michaud on the same day.

In an Oct. 29, 2014, file photo, Eliot Cutler speaks at a Portland press conference where he called victory a longshot but that was not dropping out of the gubernatorial race. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Cutler was criticized for that showing, particularly by Democrats who thought he contributed to Michaud’s defeat and may have resented him for his 2010 performance. The idea that he “spoiled” one race or the other spurred Maine’s first-in-the-nation adoption of ranked-choice voting in primaries, congressional and presidential election.

His perceived arrogance was a theme mentioned in both campaigns and something many of his supporters noted but looked past due to his ideas and civic commitment.

A Bangor Daily News reporter covering the 2014 campaign noted that many thought of him as a “condescending elitist,” while Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz used his debate criticisms of LePage and Michaud to advise Cutler that “running for statewide office is as much an exercise in humility as it is one of intellectual prowess.”

Even while facing the prospect of prison time for child porn, he was mindful of his public image. After his case was mentioned in an article on how centrists find relatively fertile ground in Maine politics, he sent an email to the writer criticizing “a pretty gratuitous and tortured squeeze into that story.”

It is unclear how long Cutler had been viewing child pornography before November 2014. His attorney, Walter McKee, said in a filing that his client had a long-standing pornography addiction that led to his viewing illegal material as part of large batch downloads.

Eliot Cutler exits the Hancock County Unified Criminal Court alone after entering a plea of guilty to four felony charges of possessing child pornography. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Cutler’s case reflects research on child pornography offenders. Studies have shown they are virtually all men, with higher intelligence and education as well as more stable work and relationship histories than contact sex offenders. A sampling of federal cases over a year showed three-quarters of those charged lacked a criminal record — like Cutler — but said the average age of offenders over that period was just 42.

McKee did not respond to a question about whether his behavior would have affected his work if he had become governor. Cutler declined to comment further in a court hallway on Thursday.

The fallout has been loud. A former Maine lawmaker recently posted that their children were at the last event at which they saw Cutler, saying they were disgusted at the emerging details of his case. Politicians whom Cutler had given to donated his contributions last year to charity.

Those who have been more closely linked to him have been reluctant to talk, though he singled out those who have shown him compassion since his arrest in court on Thursday. The LinkedIn page of one person who worked on his campaigns does not mention that work now. 

Bob Peacock, an Eastport businessman, retired Navy captain and former town councilor who endorsed Cutler in his 2010 run, took a long pause to formulate his thoughts when asked about the former candidate on Thursday. Later, he said he would go further but knows members of Cutler’s family who have been hurt by the episode.

“All I can say, I’m surprised and I was very disappointed, just like everyone that ever met the man,” Peacock said.

BDN writer Bill Trotter contributed to this report.

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...