Maine GOP leader’s ‘news’ website propels ethics watchdogs into uncharted territory

Good morning from Augusta. Thursday will begin with a Maine Ethics Commission hearing on the once-anonymous “news” website run by a top state Republican Party official who is trying to claim that he was acting as a journalist and not an operative.

The ‘press exemption’ is a key tenet of Maine ethics law, but the democratization of media makes it hard to interpret. Earlier this month, Jason Savage, the Maine GOP’s executive director, told the commission that he owns the Maine Examiner, which drew an ethics complaint from Democrats after it influenced the Lewiston mayoral election in December.

Although the Maine Republican Party promoted the site’s posts, it told the commission that it knew nothing about Savage’s link to the Maine Examiner until January. Maine law forces entities making independent expenditures above $250 in a municipal election to report them.

Savage’s attorney said he falls into an exemption for media, shielding items like editorials from the requirement. Although many would see a difference between a newspaper and a site run by someone working on the ground to influence races, it may be hard to define legally.

Maine has handled a similar case about an anonymous site, but it isn’t quite apples-to-apples. In 2012, a federal court upheld the commission’s $200 fine against political operative Dennis Bailey, who published an anonymous site during the 2010 election attacking independent gubernatorial runner-up Eliot Cutler. Bailey also claimed the press exemption.

But the court agreed with the commission that he couldn’t claim it for two main reasons: He was working for another candidate (independent Shawn Moody, who is running again in 2018 as a Republican) and that he took the site down after two months during the election.

Savage’s site began publishing in September and has included mundane community news postings alongside more influential political content and published new content as recently as a week ago, so it’s not quite the same.

It’s hard to see how this will be resolved. In a memo, Jonathan Wayne, the executive director of the five-member commission, said it should give “serious consideration” to Savage’s claim of independence from the party. But it also says commissioners “may wish to be cautious about accepting an argument or creating a precedent that could lead to an accountability gap.” The commission meets at 9 a.m. to discuss moving forward with an investigation.

Paul LePage explains his most ‘unethical’ move

Gov. Paul LePage said he made ‘a very, very bad mistake’ in allowing a high court judge to stay on the bench. The governor didn’t name Justice Joseph M. Jabar Sr. of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, but he referenced him during a meeting with college Republicans at the University of Maine on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, he released a scathing letter accusing Jabar of being dishonest and reneging on his promise to retire last year. When asked by a student whether he had ever made an unethical decision, the governor said yes, referencing his decision to re-appoint Jabar to another seven-year term in 2016 despite being advised against it by staff.

“I made a very, very bad mistake, and I regret it, and I wish I could take it back,” LePage said.

The BDN’s Alex Acquisto sent this dispatch from Orono. You’ll be seeing her more in this space as she’ll be leading our coverage of the 2nd Congressional District race in 2018.

Teachers union leader launches Senate run

The president of the Maine Education Association has launched a bid for the Maine Senate. Lois Kilby-Chesley of Durham, who was a teacher before taking her current position six years ago, announced she will run for the District 22 seat currently held by Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason of Lisbon, who is term-Blimited out of office. Also running for that seat is Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, an Appropriations Committee member and one of the higher-profile members of the House of Representatives. District 22 includes Durham, Greene, Leeds, Lisbon, Litchfield, Sabattus, Turner Wales and Wayne. Both candidates have filed with the Maine Ethics Commission.

Today in A-town

In the House, an order originally scheduled for consideration on Tuesday to ask the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to offer an opinion on the legality of tribal-run casinos was postponed until today. The number of bills piling up for final disposition is growing and you can check out the whole list by clicking here. The same is true in the Senate. One item of note on its calendar is Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to sell a $50 million bond for student debt relief, which has been tabled since Feb. 15 awaiting reference to committee.

Several committees will be cranking this afternoon. The Judiciary Committee will take comments on a trio of bills related to public access to government hearings. The Taxation Committee will hold a work session on a bill to provide major tax breaks to Bath Iron Works over the next 20 years if the shipyard meets certain investment and employment thresholds. There is a vast spectrum of issues in the offing today. You can see the whole committee schedule by clicking here.

Reading list

  • The Department of Health and Human Services has failed to uphold a pledge to provide crisis services for adults with developmental disabilities. A network of crisis beds has dropped from 24 beds in Maine a year ago to eight or fewer now. The department’s failure to restore the beds, despite there being funding available and a 2017 pledge to do so, is landing more people in emergency rooms.
  • Democrats are trying to introduce a bill to ban bump stocks in Maine. The bill has been tabled at the Legislative Council since December but lawmakers say they will try to move it forward Tuesday when the panel meets again. However, five Republicans on the council stopped short Wednesday of saying they’d support it, despite or because of a recent order by President Donald Trump to ban them.
  • The state has confirmed that Mainers spent $77 million more than necessary on electricity between 2012 and 2016. The finding from the Maine Public Utilities Commission found that Maine residents could have saved that much by buying power under the standard state-regulated price instead of getting it from retail sellers — or “competitive electricity providers.” However, the commission largely repeated an analysis done by the Bangor Daily News in 2016 and Maine’s former public advocate called it “a real missed opportunity.”
  • Tuberculosis cases in Maine are seeing a small uptick in recent years and there’s evidence that new strains are resistant to treatment. Medical experts, worried that the disease could gain traction, are calling for broader testing for the disease in its non-contagious latent phase.

I’ll take Maine politics for $400, Alex

Alex Trebek, the legendary host of “Jeopardy,” is slated to moderate a gubernatorial debate in Pennsylvania later this year. Trebek, a Canadian native who became a U.S. citizen in 1998, said in 2012 that he would have liked to have been one of the questioners during a 2012 debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Before Maine invites him to host one of our gubernatorial debates this year, we need to pin him down on which team he was rooting for in this morning’s thrilling U.S.-Canada women’s Olympic gold medal hockey game.

But in the meantime, here are answers to a fantasy Maine politics “Jeopardy” category:

  • $200: Governor for whom the state office building adjacent to the State House is named
  • $400: The first woman to serve as Maine Senate president
  • $600: Ceremonial item delivered by Franklin County senator to kick off each new session
  • $800: Home city of Maine’s first governor
  • $1,000: Name of strip joint where LePage reportedly stayed overnight as an 11-year-old

We might give you the questions tomorrow. Here is your soundtrack. And here’s a bonus if that is too obvious for you.— Robert Long

CORRECTION: Wednesday’s Daily Brief misstated Maine’s current minimum wage, which is $10 an hour.

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins, Michael Shepherd and Alex Acquisto and edited by Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.