May 4, 2010

Otten staffer quits over plagiarism

A staff writer employed by Republican gubernatorial candidate Les Otten has resigned after his campaign admitted it had used plagiarized material.

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Gubernatorial candidate Les Otten.

Staff file photo by David Leaming

The campaign identified the writer as Will Gardiner, an employee of Maine Directions, the Winthrop-based consulting firm managing Otten's campaign.

Otten, on Monday, said Gardiner had worked on his campaign for more than 18 months and was involved in policy development.

"The level of performance of a political candidate is under a microscope that is more powerful than the microscope under which we judge everything else, and rightfully so, so that the performance and actions of those that we elect and run for office, of our politicians, is held to the highest standards," said Otten. "I do not hold myself up to be perfect, but I expect perfection. In this instance, the standard to which I hold the campaign was not met."

Gardiner, in a statement from the campaign, admitted transcribing "personal notes" that included direct passages from legislative testimony by Steve Bowen of the Maine Heritage Policy Center.

These passages were then presented as original campaign material to a Maine political blog, Augusta Insider, in response to a candidate questionnaire about education policy.

Another Maine political blogger, Matthew Gagnon, revealed the similarity between the passages over the weekend.

Otten and Edie Smith, his campaign manager , said they acknowledged the plagiarism Friday evening and called Bowen and Maine Heritage Policy Center to apologize. Campaign officials said they accepted Gardiner's resignation on Sunday morning.

Early Monday, Otten and Smith would neither confirm nor deny that Gardiner resigned from the campaign staff or was still employed by Maine Directions.

At that time, Otten said he did not want to scapegoat anyone and that removal from the campaign was punishment enough.

"He is destroyed. That is enough for me," Otten said at approximately 3:20 p.m. about the then-unnamed employee.

At 3:56 p.m. Monday, the campaign released a statement from Gardiner.

"The controversy over the omission of citing the Maine Heritage Policy Center on some of the latest Otten campaign material has been a distraction to the campaign," Gardiner said.

"The important thing about this is that Les Otten shares the views of the Maine Heritage Policy Center on these issues, and that he took swift action to correct the error and apologize to the Maine Heritage Policy Center," Gardiner's statement said. "I have offered my resignation from the campaign and Les has accepted it. I have offered my resignation from Maine Directions and Edie Smith has accepted it."

Gardiner said he would still support Otten's candidacy for governor; he is listed as contributing $250 to Otten's campaign, according to state campaign finance records.

The political consulting firm that employed Gardiner, Maine Directions, is managed by Smith. It had four employees until Sunday, according to Smith. Campaign finance records indicate Maine Directions has been paid more than $250,000 to run Otten's campaign since July 2009.

Otten's gubernatorial campaign has raised, and spent, the most of any this year. It has reported total receipts of about $1.4 million, some $1.2 million coming from the candidate himself.

Otten, on Monday, also took responsibility for the plagiarism. He approved of the plagiarized materials before they were sent, he said, but did not question their authenticity because they were consistent with his campaign platform.

"There is an element of continuous paraphrasing that takes place in a campaign," he added.

Bowen, whose testimony before the Legislature's Education Committee was copied, wrote a blog post Sunday accusing the Otten campaign of initially making a "less than accurate representation" of its error.

On Monday, however, Bowen said he was satisfied Otten would have attributed the material if he had known it was not written by his campaign.

Others in the Republican primary for Maine governor wasted little time in commenting Monday.

Bruce Poliquin's campaign accused the Otten campaign of also copying the Maine Heritage Policy Center in a section of the candidate's jobs plan that appears on Otten's website.

"Research done by the center comparing health care premiums is copied word for word with no mention of the original author," Poliquin's release stated.

In response, Otten said the section in question was not plagiarism but the result of mutual collaboration.

"If there are similarities, there are similarities because we collaborated, as all candidates are encouraged to collaborate, if they agree, with the Maine Heritage Policy Center," he said. "I'm not going to respond to Poliquin."

An advertisement on Gagnon's website, pinetreepolitics.com, from Sen. Peter Mills included the jab that Mills "wrote his own answers."

Allegations of unsourced imitation or copying of others' material have plagued Otten's campaign since its inception last summer.

The campaign's initial logo and website was chided by observers for closely resembling that of President Barack Obama -- a Democrat -- during his campaign for president. The logo later was changed on the website.

Ethan Wilensky-Lanford -- 620-7016

ewlanford@mainetoday.com

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