Maine Lawmakers Eye Public Hearing for Controversial Casino Bid

Mar 7, 2017

State lawmakers are considering a move that could draw the backers of a controversial casino proposal out of the shadows.

The leading Democrat and Republican on the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee say they hope a public hearing on the York County casino referendum will help answer several questions about the campaign and a gambling developer with a checkered past.

It’s rare for lawmakers to hold a public hearing on a referendum that has qualified for the ballot. But the so-called Horseracing Jobs Fairness campaign isn’t operating like a typical ballot campaign. It has spent over $4 million just to qualify for the ballot — double the money Gov. Paul LePage’s re-election campaign spent two years ago and a million more than each of the candidates spent trying to defeat him.

Also, the casino campaign has operated largely in secret — its known operatives turn away press inquiries despite nagging questions about a proposal that will be appearing before Maine voters nine months from now.

“This proposal — it needs some light shed on it,” says Republican Senate Leader Garrett Mason, co-chairman of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.

Mason isn’t the only one who thinks the Horseracing Jobs Fairness campaign should answer some questions on the record and in public. Co-chairman Louis Luchini, the driving force behind the public hearing, says it’s important for the public to know more about the casino initiative before it goes to voters.

“And really see who actually supports this initiative and who doesn’t,” he says.

A public hearing may seem like a minor move. But it’s part of just three options lawmakers have with a referendum that’s qualified for the ballot.

“The Constitution basically ties our hands to only have three options. We can either pass it exactly as it is, we can take no action and send it out to the voters or we can put up a competing measure,” he says.

The Legislature typically takes no action and sends a referendum to voters. That’s still the likely outcome for Horseracing Jobs Fairness. But a public hearing will allow lawmakers to ask questions and get the campaign, and its opponents, on the record.

Luchini, and others, have plenty of questions.

The proposal is written in such a way that only one person could build it: Shawn Scott, the casino developer who first brought gambling to Maine after a successful referendum to build the first racino in Bangor.

Scott was unable to secure the license for the facility after financial problems with other companies and the criminal history of one of his business partners came to light. He failed to obtain gambling licenses in Idaho, Washington, D.C., and New York. He has largely fallen out of public view, but his name has surfaced in a trail of litigation that runs from Laos and Guam to the U.S.

Luchini says the casino proposal highlights a flaw in the referendum process.

“You can have one person pay millions of dollars, like this case, to go out and collect signatures to get something on the ballot that isn’t fair for everybody and benefits just one person,” he says.

Scott isn’t mentioned in campaign finance reports. But his sister, Lisa Scott of Miami, is singlehandedly bankrolling the effort. Scott released a statement in January when the campaign qualified for the ballot — the campaign’s first public comment since its ballot drive began in 2015.

The extent of Shawn Scott’s involvement is still a mystery, as was his role in the unsuccessful referendum to build a slots parlor in Massachusetts last year. Scott and his partners bankrolled that effort even though the campaign had originally insisted that Scott wasn’t involved.

Maine lawmakers hope to ask questions about funding and other matters. That could happen if the Legislature agrees to hold a public hearing.

Luchini says he plans to recommend that action when the House of Representatives convenes Tuesday.