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Maine Ethics Commission Rejects Request To Postpone Casino Campaign Hearing

The Maine Ethics Commission has unanimously rejected a request to postpone a hearing about its investigation into the Question 1 casino campaign's funding sources.


The commission is expected to review and potentially rule on some of the findings from its probe Tuesday. But on Sunday night, the commission received a request from several of the attorneys representing the various entities funding the casino initiative to delay the meeting.


Bruce Merrill is the attorney representing Lisa Scott, the sister of casino developer Shawn Scott, who would have exclusive rights to apply for the gambling license if Question 1 passes. Merrill read the request on behalf of the attorneys during a conference call meeting with the five-member commission on Monday.


Merrill said the Question 1 campaign has become a "media circus" and that a hearing a week before the election could influence the vote on Election Day.


"All of that doesn't have to happen on the eve an election that will be irreparably tainted by addressing issue that add nothing more to the body of information that the public is obliged to have under the Clean Elections law," Merrill read from the email.


The commission is investigating the finances of the campaign, and specifically, whether the groups purposely obscured their involvement in funding a campaign that has spent more than $8 million to persuade voters and put the issue on the ballot. Up until April, Lisa Scott appeared as the only funder of the campaign, funneling close to $4.4 million over the course of more than a year. But in April it was revealed that an array of domestic and offshore companies, some connected to Shawn Scott, were bankrolling the campaign. The new disclosure, plus a request from state lawmakers, triggered the investigation.


Since then the Ethics Commission has subpoenaed bank records and correspondence from the various corporations and individuals involved in the campaign. Attorneys for the campaign have repeatedly asked the commission for more time to respond to the records requests.


On Monday, several commissioners were clearly frustrated by the request to delay once more. During the conference call, one of the casino initiative attorneys suggested that holding the hearing could give the appearance "of impropriety" and trying to influence next week's vote.


Commissioner William Lee said delaying the hearing could be viewed as improper.


The Ethics Commission has repeatedly held meetings about investigations, and taken enforcement action, close to Election Day. A review of its meeting agendas shows that the commission has met five times in the last seven years within a week of Election Day -- and twice the day before the election.


On several occasions the attorneys suggested that the entire state bureaucracy was aligned against Question 1.  They made repeated references to an informational session by the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee about the Question 1 campaign. The oversight panel took no action and never launched an investigation, but several members said the Question 1 campaign was a case study in how Maine's citizen initiative process could be abused by outside interest groups.


The attorneys also cited comments made by Rep. Deane Rykerson, a Democrat from Kittery, during the Maine Public call-in show Maine Calling last week. The show served as a debate between Shawn Scott and Democratic Rep. Louis Luchini, of Ellsworth, one of the lawmakers who requested the ethics investigation. At one point, Rykerson, a member of the Government Oversight Committee, asked Scott to list his "criminal convictions." Scott's gambling pursuits have left a trail of litigation and licensing disputes, but no known criminal convictions.


Scott vigorously denied Rykerson's assertion during the call-in show. Rykerson has not retracted his statements.


The Ethics Commission is an independent agency charged with enforcing Maine’s campaign finance laws. It’s unclear if the commission will vote to consider penalties in the casino case, discuss recent findings from commission staff, or both, during Tuesday’s meeting.

This story was originally published Oct. 30, 2017 at 12:42 p.m. ET.


Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.