AUGUSTA — For $74 and some off-the-clock sweat, Maine Republican Party Executive Director Jason Savage says he created and ran a once-secretive online newspaper that did not have ties to the state party.

The party itself told the Maine Ethics Commission it knew nothing about who operated Savage’s Maine Examiner until Democrats filed a complaint about it last month. At that time, no one had publicly acknowledged ownership of the website.

Democrats allege the website was possibly an illegal Republican operation that skirted campaign finance rules, something the Republican Party strongly denies. The ethics commission is due to consider the Democrats’ complaint at its meeting Thursday in Augusta.

What is clear is that the Maine Republican Party has been focused on news for more than a year, issuing videos in early 2017 attacking what it called “fake news” in some traditional newspapers and calling on supporters to blow the whistle when they see things that seem biased or wrong.

Since then, it has gone even further.

The party has created at least three dozen videos in the past year as part of its “News You Can Trust” series that lays out what Republican officials from Gov. Paul LePage to U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin have to say about the issues of the day. At first, Savage himself appeared as a co-host, but he ceased serving as co-anchor early on.

He did not lose his interest in news, though.

According to a response filed recently with the Ethics Commission on behalf of Savage in response to the Democrats’ complaint, Savage created the Maine Examiner as “a personal project,” shelled out the cash to register a website and got down to work.

All of it, according to the Republicans, was done “in his individual capacity, at his own expense, and outside the scope of his employment” with the party. Savage is the Republicans’ top staff person in Maine. But the party has often used or referred to material produced by the Maine Examiner.

In a “News You Can Trust” video issued three days before the Lewiston election, the state party focused attention on Examiner stories reporting on how Democrat-backed Ben Chin had called some voters racists in internal campaign emails – leaked documents that Savage’s online paper wrote six stories about between Dec. 3 and Dec. 10.

It also ran a story Dec. 7 about the city towing Chin’s car after he accumulated too many unpaid parking tickets.

All of the Chin-related stories were widely shared on social media, some of it pushed by the Republicans. In a runoff vote on Dec. 12, Chin lost to Republican-endorsed Shane Bouchard by 142 votes.

If Savage and the Maine Republican Party “wanted to push their message through an alternative website, that’s fine. They should have just told people they were behind it,” Phil Bartlett, the Maine Democratic Party leader, said Monday. “But these dirty tricks and the lies to cover them up are what make people sick and tired of politics.”

From the Examiner’s first story Sept. 11 until The Boston Globe called attention to the site in January, it published about 70 stories and a few editorials, all of them shuffled online by Savage.

Its first story, about a proposed plastic bag ban in Bangor, hit the internet at 7:55 p.m. on a Monday.

After a slow start – eight stories in its first six weeks – the website publication picked up the pace quickly in October, marking its busiest period: the days leading up to Lewiston’s mayoral runoff on Dec. 12.

Republicans have not publicly detailed the days and times when Savage is expected to be working for the party, making it more difficult to determine whether he did any of the Maine Examiner work while he was on the party’s clock.

A look at all of the stories and editorials published through Jan. 17, when the Globe story appeared, shows no obvious pattern. He published stories every day of the week, with Sundays and Thursdays the most common. Saturday was Savage’s slowest day.

Checking the time of publication also shows no clear pattern, except that he never filed anything after 10:28 p.m. or earlier than 6:20 a.m.

His busiest time for publishing fell between 9 a.m. and noon. Evenings were generally pretty slow.

“For someone who says he wrote for the Maine Examiner only on his free time, Jason is either not working very much (for the party) or he’s just not telling people the truth,” Bartlett said.

There is no evidence, however, that Savage worked on his online paper at times he was supposed to be serving only the Republican Party. His job intrinsically requires him to work at odd hours and to have his days divided more than most between his job and his personal life.

The Ethics Commission will have its hands full trying to determine whether Savage skirted the law.

For instance, on the night of the Dec. 12 election in Lewiston, Savage issued a tweet congratulating Bouchard for his victory shortly after 10 p.m., something that might seem like at least a semiofficial step.

He did not post a story about the win on the Examiner’s site until 10:28 that evening, perhaps an indication that he wrote it after he was finished with anything required of him as a party leader.

While Republican leadership is expressing support for Savage and has maintained him in the party’s top spot, Democrats are deeply skeptical.

“Common sense tells us that he’s probably still not being straight with us, and that what he’s saying now – in addition to not being the truth – is nothing more than a last-ditch ‘Hail Mary’ to cover himself and the Maine GOP,” Bartlett said.

“The bottom line here is that what Jason and the Republicans did was wrong. It was dishonest and deceitful to Maine people. I hope Jason will just come clean with Maine people about this.”

Savage could not be reached Monday. He has yet to comment in any detail on the Examiner and related issues.

The Examiner’s stories are generally presented with a conservative slant, with some clearly aimed at hurting Democratic politicians. None would do any obvious harm to a Republican. With a few exceptions, the stories are basically true, but they sometimes have a clear right-wing bias.

Despite Savage’s admission to the ethics panel that he created and operates the site, it does not carry any information about its ownership, editors or writers. It remains cloaked in anonymity.

Steve Collins can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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