Fake website stirs up mayoral campaign
A screenshot of all that remained as of Saturday night of a website that co-opted mayoral candidate Robert Cronin’s name and put up fake content.

NEWBURYPORT – A website that co-opted the name of a mayoral candidate — and raised questions about his qualifications for the job — stirred anger and an accusation against his rival before the site, put up anonymously, was all but removed Saturday night.

Robert Cronin, the Ward 3 councilor running for mayor, said Saturday morning that he was outraged when he was alerted to the website, Robertjcronin.com. He accused Mayor Donna Holaday’s campaign of creating the false website to discredit his campaign.

Making matters worse, Cronin said, was that the web address gave the impression it was created by him.

When told about it Saturday, Holaday condemned the website and said it was not done by anyone in her campaign. “We would never do this,” she said.

Both candidates called for the website to be taken down.

By Saturday night, the content of the website had been removed, leaving only the statement, “We are not affiliated with any candidate” under a smile emoji.

The original website was a homepage with no links or additional pages. It said “Newburyport voter beware,” and questioned Cronin’s candidacy. The site had typographical errors. It misspelled the mayor’s first name as “Danna,” and also said, “Make sure you know the man youre [sic] voting for before you vote.”

The site included a contact page but there was no response to an email sent by The Daily News through that page asking the creator to identify him or herself.

Cronin complained Saturday that the website represented a ramp-up of negative tactics engineered by the Holaday campaign.

“For the past 10 days, there has been an organized social media and whisper campaign with recognizable names attached to the mayor’s campaign,” he said.

He told The Daily News via email “there have been negative comments injected in random posts with false information about me, about 2 dozen people in all, from people associated with her campaign. Then the next thing not 24 hours later is a false website. I can certainly see these dots are all connected and we will be seeking an investigation as to how this site was funded.”

On Sunday, Holaday reiterated that the site was not connected to her campaign.

“It’s unfortunate,” she said. “It’s a distraction from the hard work both campaigns are putting forward. I was very disappointed that without even a phone call from him or any investigation, right away I was accused of doing this. That was very disappointing. That is not the way I operate. Everyone on my team knows that.”

Cronin, who was out campaigning on Sunday said that, while the content of the website had changed since it was discovered, “they still continue to use my name so really nothing has changed.”

On Saturday, he characterized the fake website as “a below-the-belt tactic that I find extremely disappointing.”

There is no information on the website to indicate who paid for or created the site and there are no direct connections to the Holaday campaign or any author. Cronin said lack of accountability angered him and suggested it could run afoul of state campaign laws. He said he intended to file a complaint with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

This anonymous intrusion into the campaign, less than two weeks before the Nov. 7 election, harkened back to fall 2013, when an anonymous mailing and robocalls urging residents to vote against Holaday in a preliminary mayoral election roiled the local political scene.

At that time, the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance investigated but could not determine who paid for and made the mailings and robocalls. At the time, Holaday was seeking re-election for mayor in a preliminary race against City Councilor Greg Earls and City Councilor Dick Sullivan Jr.

On Sunday, Holaday said this most recent incident was “disappointing, but at least it wasn’t as horrific as four years ago. It took months for Campaign Finance to investigate it. They got as far as some bulk mail site in Andover,” but could never determine the identity of the person behind it.

“I hope this is the end of this,” she said.

On Saturday, Councilor Joe Devlin, an early Cronin supporter, condemned the fake website and the divisive tactic by whoever created it. He also said he believed it’s a campaign law violation and added that he would urge Cronin to file a complaint with the state.

“This is a disgraceful display,” Devlin said. “This is what’s ailing our political discussion now. It’s unbecoming to the great residents of this city. I’m actually saddened that it’s come to this level.”