New casino legislation envelopes Maine in a web of intrigue

The November referendum, in which York County residents will vote on whether or not to build Maine’s third major casino in their county, is fast approaching. After the votes are cast, the local government must agree to host the casino.

According to the Portland Press Herald, the casino bid has ensnared Maine politicians, government officials, global financial institutions, and a man named Shawn Scott in a web of deceit, obfuscation, alleged corruption, and fraud.

On the surface, proponents of the casino assert an economic argument. Last week, the pro-casino lobby, which calls itself Progress for Maine, released an economic impact analysis prepared by a Florida consultancy. It claims construction of a $175 million casino, resort, and hotel would create upwards of 2,100 jobs and 2,700 seasonal construction jobs, as well as increase tax revenues by almost $50 million per year.

Opponents include York Town Manager Stephen Burns and bipartisan legislative alliances including Maine Senate Majority Leader Garret Mason, R- Lisbon, and Governor Paul LePage. They find that the pro-casino’s lobby alleged unethical actions show that this proposal is designed solely to benefit its originators and would, in fact, harm pre-existing business in Maine.

Critics cite concerns that the consultancy hired for the recent economic analysis has been the target of high-profile criticism for unethical business practices, such as gerrymandering unemployment maps to help real estate developers take advantage of state programs to win profitable building contracts.

Opponents also find that the crookedness of the consulted firm represents a trend in the pro-casino movement.

The November referendum was established via Maine’s citizen initiative process. Under Maine State Law, any proposed ballot measure which receives the requisite petition signatures must be considered for a referendum. A $4.3 million signature obtaining campaign has propelled the pro-casino lobby to this number. This funding will become important later.

The pro-casino lobby’s petition called for the state to accept applications to receive the rights to build and operate the York County casino only from “an entity that owned in 2003 at least 51% of an entity licensed to operate a commercial track in Penobscot County that conducted harness racing with pari-mutuel wagering on more than 25 days during calendar year 2002.”

Critics find that the pro-casino lobby used this statement to fool petition signatories, who likely mistook it for a sensible statement regarding the qualifications of the applicants.

In reality, however, this describes only one person: Shawn Scott. Scott is a global gambling developer who sold his $51 million share in Bangor Raceway over ten years ago amidst several accusations of financial mismanagement from the Maine Harness Racing Commission, which also noted that Scott has 37 lawsuits against him.

Scott is also a principal at the high-risk investment firm Bridge Capital, based in the Pacific island of Saipan. In 2016, Bridge Capital lost its bid to build a slots-only casino in Massachusetts, and the firm was fined $125,000 for violations of campaign finance law. Campaign finance obscurity has also plagued Scott’s push for the York County casino.

State bodies considered the initial proposal following lobbying group Horseracing Jobs Fairness’ $4.3 million campaign to support its discussion. The group listed the donor of these funds as Scott’s sister, Lisa Scott.

However, the Maine State Ethics Committee later demanded a campaign finance investigation as it was uncovered that Lisa Scott received funds from several unlisted companies.

The Committee discovered that Lisa Scott set up three political action committees. Her brother’s businesses and associates— Bridge Capital and Capital Seven, LLC—then loaned the funds to these PACs, Lisa Scott, and other intermediaries before the cash was funneled into Horse-racing Jobs Fairness. Attorneys for Bridge Capital and Capital Seven, LLC have objected to state officials’ subpoenas.

A third company, Regent Able Associate, Co., was also found to have loaned $1.213 million to the push. Committee Executive Director Jonathan Wayne says that this company has proven difficult to subpoena, however, as its location could be narrowed only to `someplace in Asia.`

After this initial probe, the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices voted 5-0 for a deeper investigation, and Lisa Scott resigned from the campaign.

Despite what almost all involved government officials have now informally deemed campaign finance fraud, Maine State Law states that the ballot measure must still be presented for the referendum. To spearhead their campaign, the pro-casino lobby has hired Washington, D.C. political consulting firm Goddard Gunster, who is widely credited for winning the Brexit vote.

Opponents believe that Scott intends to capture the casino rights and sell them. State economists estimate that the license to build and operate a York County casino may be worth over $200 million, so he and his associates’ profit would be in the hundreds of millions.

However, Scott and his pro-casino associates continue to argue that the casino will be good for York County and Maine. They cite proposal elements such as that 24 percent of net slot machine income would go to public entities, such as K-12 education programs.

However, Stephen Burns opposes granting Scott market power, stating, “setting this up for only one entity is pretty ludicrous” These comments are Burns’ own, and do not represent his position as York Town Manager.

While past anti-casino votes suggest York is an unlikely host, other towns in the county, including Biddeford and Sanford, have neither accepted nor rejected hosting the casino, waiting to see if the referendum passes.

Since May, a bipartisan legislative alliance of Mason and Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth have been in ‘informal talks’ to squash the proposal before the November vote by passing it into law and immediately repealing it. They find this underhanded approach justified by the pro-casino lobby’s abuse of Maine’s citizen initiative process.

“They were not truthful with Maine voters when they were hustling those signatures, and maybe this deserves a response that is equally as measured,” said Mason.

LePage went further, calling this proposal the “slow deterioration of your government process,” and informally offering his support to the pass and repeal attack.

Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, voiced concern regarding the precedent that may be set by such a tactic, undermining future ballot proposals.

The Governor has said that Maine law enables those with financial re- sources to get anything to vote, and so, there must be a powerful check on that ability. These issues will continue to be discussed until this matter is resolved within the legislature or by vote in November.