AUGUSTA — State ethics commission members expressed mixed views Wednesday about proposed changes to campaign finance laws spurred by the operation of an anonymous political website by a top Maine Republican Party official.

In February, the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices opted not to further investigate complaints against Maine Republican Party Executive Director Jason Savage for his role in the conservative Maine Examiner website. Although Savage maintains he operated the site as a “personal project,” the Maine Democratic Party filed a complaint alleging that Savage and the Republican Party were skirting campaign finance disclosure laws by attacking Democratic candidates through the anonymous website.

On Wednesday, ethics commission members were divided over a proposal that attempts to wade into the thorny issues of political employees, anonymous speech and transparency laws meant to inform the public about who is bankrolling campaign messages.

The proposal states that any employee of a political committee would be presumed to be working “within the scope of his or employment” if they designed, produced or disseminated “a communication to voters expressly advocating for or against a candidate.” The employee or committee could refute that presumption by showing the employee was acting on his or her own outside of work and without the authorization of the party committee’s leadership.

But otherwise, the committee would have to disclose the value of that work as an expenditure in campaign finance reports, according to a draft of the proposal.

“I just want to avoid having someone who is an employee of a party being able to avoid disclosure requirements by publishing something anonymously when, in fact, it is express advocacy for a particular election result,” said Commissioner William Lee of Waterville, who suggested that the commission discuss potential changes.

But just as with the 3-2 vote on the Savage investigation, the views of the four commissioners present Wednesday fell along party lines.

Commissioner Richard Nass, a Republican from Acton, raised concerns about violating the constitutional rights of individuals, given the nation’s centuries-old tradition of anonymous speech. Fully acknowledging his own partisan views on Maine’s media landscape, Nass said that he and other Republicans do not feel well-represented by the state’s newspapers – including the Portland Press Herald – because of what he sees as a liberal lean.

“I’m reluctant to put restrictions on someone else’s speech assuming that it might and, in fact, will appeal to a great number of citizens who don’t feel like the public arena is providing a balanced approach to what might be done out there,” Nass said. A former state legislator, Nass also raised concerns about singling out someone who works for a political party and saying anonymous speech “is not available for you.”

But Meri Lowry, a Democrat from Portland, responded that the proposal is not putting restrictions on anyone’s free speech.

“I think what we are saying is, ‘Absolutely, engage in full expression of your political views.’ But if you happen to be an employee of a political party, then the political party must disclose the author,” Lowry said. “All we are saying is you cannot be an employee of a political party and anonymously say things that are enhanced or made available to the public by a political party unless you do the disclosure that our campaign finance laws require.”

In the high-profile case involving Savage, the Maine Examiner published multiple articles featuring internal campaign emails and other personal information about Lewiston mayoral candidate Ben Chin, a Democrat. Both the Maine Republican Party and Savage then promoted the articles on social media. While the impact is unclear, Democrats contend the articles may have contributed to Chin’s narrow loss during a runoff election.

Ethics commission members discussed the issue for about 40 minutes Wednesday before directing commission Executive Director Jonathan Wayne and Assistant Attorney General Phyllis Gardiner to come back with revised language at a future meeting.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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Twitter: KevinMillerPPH

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