September 24, 2010

Anti-Cutler website draws ethics investigation

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — State ethics officials are investigating a website critical of independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler for possible violations of Maine's campaign disclosure laws.

Earlier this month, the Cutler campaign asked the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices to investigate The Cutler Files (www.cutlerfiles.com), an anonymous website that calls Cutler names, has unflattering photos of him, and uses altered photos to poke fun at him.

"He's a phony and a fraud," the website says. "He's rewriting and revising his history and profile to fit a carefully created campaign persona, fudging the facts and ignoring the truth."

The Cutler campaign contends in a Sept. 7 letter that the website violates Maine law because it fails to disclose the name and address of those who authorized the "express advocacy" against his candidacy.

Express advocacy is defined in law as working for the defeat or election of a candidate for public office.

At that time of the complaint, the site also did not include a disclaimer that it was "not paid for or authorized by any candidate."

Cutler's campaign manager called the site "character assassination" and said if it's allowed to stand without attribution, it signals a new era in Maine politics.

"The most egregious thing is the cowards who put this up aren't willing to put their names to it," said Ted O'Meara. "It signals an ugly new chapter in Maine politics if this is allowed to stand."

On Sept. 9, ethics commission Executive Director Jonathan Wayne contacted someone who he believed had knowledge of the website to discuss the possible violations. A day or two later, the site was changed to include a "not paid for" disclaimer.

However, it still does not reveal who is behind the content, which covers Cutler's time as a lawyer in China, his work in Washington, D.C., and his involvement as a board member of Thornburg Mortgage, which went bankrupt in 2009.

Under a "who we are" heading, the site says:

"We are a group of researchers, writers and journalists who are frustrated that Maine's mainstream media is either unwilling or incapable of adequately investigating the backgrounds of candidates for higher office. We are not authorized by or affiliated with any candidate or political party, and we have not been compensated in any way for our effort. We do not advocate for or against the election of any particular candidate. We are simply exercising our First Amendment rights of free speech to provide the public with important information regarding candidates."

In an e-mail made public this week by the ethics commission, a "Michael Blessing" responded to Wayne's notification of the potential violations. The Sept. 15 e-mail says the creators have consulted with two lawyers and made changes to the site so it would not "expressly advocate" against Cutler.

"We have made substantial changes to the website since you viewed it on Sept. 9," he wrote. "We believe the site does not expressly advocate for the election or defeat of Mr. Cutler."

In an e-mail exchange with the Morning Sentinel on Thursday, Blessing — who says his real name is not Michael Blessing but that he goes by the name "Publius" — said several people are behind the site and that they believe it is protected by free-speech rights granted by the First Amendment.

"Mr. Cutler and his lawyers are simply trying to censor free speech and block the dissemination of accurate, truthful information," he wrote in all-capital letters in an e-mail. "If they believe there is anything inaccurate on cutlerfiles.com they are free to respond, but so far they have not done so."

Publius, a pseudonym used by the authors of The Federalist Papers, is also a name used regularly by posters on Maine political blogs.

In his e-mail to the Morning Sentinel, Publius stated the website is not different than anonymous comments posted at the end of newspaper stories or on Facebook pages.

"Because there has been virtually no expenditure of money to produce this Web site, and it is being done by individuals who are acting independent of any political candidate or party, it is no different than any other Facebook page, blog, Web site or anonymous posting permitted by your own newspaper, all of which don't require the stamp of approval from state government," he wrote.

O'Meara said there's a big difference. "This is one site deliberately set up for a very specific purpose," he said. "It's full of half-truths and mischaracterizations. It's crystal clear what the intent is."

The commission is scheduled to hear from an attorney for the website and from staff at the ethics commission during a hearing on Thursday.

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