By Scott Thistle, Press Herald
AUGUSTA — Lawmakers on the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee made the case Monday that Maine’s initiative process is being gamed, and pointed to a flow chart showing a dizzying array of out-of-state and overseas entities with ties to the casino referendum on the November ballot as Exhibit A.
“It’s been hijacked, it’s been hijacked by wealthy out-of-state special interest groups … and they have figured out how they can buy legislation,” said Rep. Paul Sutton, R-Warren.
Also Monday, a new political action committee, “A Bad Deal for Maine,” registered to oppose the ballot question that would bring a casino to York County. That PAC is being run by political consultants Roy Lenardson and Trevor Bragdon, and is being bankrolled largely by Oxford Casino, which many believe would lose business to a new casino in southern Maine.
The oversight committee said it is still gathering facts and has not launched a formal investigation into the ballot question campaign, but after the meeting Monday, lawmakers on the panel said they were concerned that the casino ballot question and several others in recent years were not the work of Maine citizens, but stemmed from out-of-state interests looking to cash in on the state’s citizen initiative process.
Rep. Jeff Pierce, R-Dresden, sent a letter to Beth Ashcroft, director of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, the committee’s investigative arm, asking for a broad review of the citizen initiative process with an eye toward changing it or creating a law that will protect it from abuse.
“We are not suggesting the people of Maine are not smart enough to understand the referendum question they see on the ballot,” Pierce wrote. “I am suggesting that our citizen referendum process is being taken advantage of, as evidenced by the numerous ethical violations, including the behavior of those spearheading the York County casino referendum.”
Language in the underlying casino legislation, which is not printed on the ballot, is written in a way that allows only international gambling entrepreneur Shawn Scott or one of his companies to apply for the license.
Scott won voter approval to add slots to Bangor’s struggling horse track in 2003, bringing Maine the first of its two casinos. He then sold those rights to Penn National – which still operates what is now Hollywood Casino – for $51 million as regulators scrutinized his businesses and associates.
The license for a casino in southern Maine could be worth up to $200 million, state officials have said.
“This is a wicked shady deal,” Lenardson said. “Voters are being asked to give one guy his own personal casino – a guy that even Nevada wouldn’t give a casino license to. And if there was any doubt where this is all headed – all you have to do is look at the investigations already underway here in Maine accusing Shawn Scott and his friends of all kinds of financial shenanigans, and that’s before they even have a casino.”
Michael Sherry, the Boston-based spokesman for the pro-casino political action committee Progress for Maine, said the new opposition PAC clearly was formed to “stifle competition.”
“The opposition to Question 1 is not authentic, has no grassroots support, and is being funded by the Kentucky-based Churchill Downs Inc.,” Sherry wrote in an email to the Portland Press Herald. “The campaign is being managed by a Florida-based operative in a desperate bid to protect an incumbent player at the expense of thousands of Maine jobs and millions in potential tax revenues for Maine priorities. Voters should recognize this for what it is: a wealthy business hoping to trick Maine into protecting its monopoly.”
Lenardson, a former Republican State House staffer, lives in Florida and his political consulting firm, Strategic Advocacy, conducts business both there and in Maine. Strategic Advocacy was the lead consulting firm used to beat back a slew of casino expansion proposals in 2011.
Sherry said Progress for Maine’s campaign is focused on the economic benefits that a York County casino would bring to Maine.
A recent economic impact study commissioned by the pro-casino PAC suggests a York County casino would generate up to 5,000 full- and part-time jobs, and deliver $11 million a year to public schools, $2 million to support and promote harness racing, $1 million for Maine’s American Indian tribes and about $217,000 for veterans service organizations.
Progress for Maine also recently launched a campaign on social media that attacked lawmakers, including state Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon, and Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, for their opposition to the ballot question, suggesting they had conflicts of interest for accepting campaign contributions from Oxford Casino or its parent company, Churchill Downs.
But the campaign for the casino has been mired in controversy since its initial signature drive under the ballot question committee, Horseracing Jobs Fairness, originally headed by Scott’s sister Lisa Scott, a Miami real estate developer, and first launched in 2015. Among other tactics, the campaign hired out-of-state workers to collect voter signatures, offering to pay them as much as $10 a signature.
It’s one of the issues that makes lawmakers like Pierce and Sutton bristle. “Is this what the intent of the citizen initiative was meant to be?” Pierce asked.
Casino opponents also were quick to point to information that’s come to light in recent weeks showing the finances for the pro-casino campaign appeared to be nearly exclusively from outside the state and were being driven largely by Shawn Scott, who has collected massive paychecks “flipping” racetracks and gambling facilities across the country while being dogged by lawsuits and complaints about his business practices.
Sherry batted away a question about why the legislation was written so that only Scott or an associate would be allowed to build the casino.
“Whether or not the licensing process outlined in Question 1 is competitive is completely unrelated to whether or not Oxford’s involvement is driven by trying to stifle competition,” he wrote.
Progress for Maine has formed this year to support the casino push, acknowledging it too is receiving financial support from Scott and at least one of his business partners, David Wilson.
It took two years and two attempts for Horseracing Jobs Fairness, the original ballot question committee set up to advance the casino, to qualify for the ballot after Secretary of State Matt Dunlap invalidated tens of thousands of voter signatures in the first petition push in 2015. Horseracing Jobs Fairness has spent more than $4.3 million to get to this point, every penny of which came from Lisa Scott, who recently said she was stepping away from the campaign after forming four separate ballot question committees in an attempt to document the flow of cash to the campaign for the casino.
Those efforts remain the subject of an investigation by the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, which has jurisdiction over the state’s election and campaign finance laws.
Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the ethics commission, said Monday that the investigation was proceeding but was not at a point where new findings could be disclosed.
The five-member commission first voted to investigate the campaign in June, but a series of objections from an attorney for Lisa Scott delayed the release of key financial records. However, information that Ashcroft provided to the Government Oversight Committee on Monday said Lisa Scott and others connected to the campaign had begun to turn over thousands of pages of documents, including financial records.
The commission says it needed those records to determine the source of the money Lisa Scott spent on getting the ballot question before voters. Such disclosures are required under state law.
The ethics commission is expected to meet again Thursday, but isn’t expected to take up the casino campaign again until October.
The oversight committee also agreed Monday to invite those backing the campaign to come before it on Oct. 19. While the committee also has the authority to subpoena witnesses, it has decided not to take that step pending the outcome of the ethics commission’s investigation.