Maine ethics watchdog questions casino referendum funding

Good morning from Augusta, where Maine’s ethics watchdog may soon begin an investigation into the bid for a new casino in York County by a group that has been giving them plenty to think about during the last few months.

Staff at the Maine Ethics Commission will recommend at a June 9 meeting that commissioners authorize an investigation into the web of companies backing the November referendum, an effort fronted by Lisa Scott, the sister of U.S. Virgin Islands casino developer Shawn Scott.

He runs a company that would have sole rights to the casino if they win at the ballot, but in campaign filings going back to 2015, Lisa Scott portrayed herself as the campaign’s sole funder, putting $4.2 million into a political action committee as of March’s end.

That was until April, when documents were filed showing the money came from her brother’s Las Vegas company and a Japanese company, routed through Lisa Scott and two other companies (one in Miami company and one in the U.S. commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands). The commission made a handy flow chart to track it.

That’s an apparent violation of Maine law, which makes groups spending at least $5,000 on elections disclose it within a week, and Maine Ethics Commission Executive Director Jonathan Wayne argued in a memo that most of these filings should be viewed as late, which could carry heavy fines under the law.

However, Horseracing Jobs Fairness, Lisa Scott’s political action committee, responded that it’s now in full compliance with the law and a probe is unnecessary. The two investing companies said it would “vigorously protest” fines.

But Wayne’s memo says the commission staff should ask for bank and loan documents and written communication between the entities funding the bid and ask Lisa Scott and lobbyist Cheryl Timberlake, the political committee’s treasurer, to testify under oath. He recommends waiting to see what the investigation turns up before asking Shawn Scott to testify.

The casino mogul has a history of complex financial dealings and already scored big in Maine, where he persuaded voters in 2003 to allow slot machines at a Bangor facility that became Hollywood Casino after he sold the rights for $51 million without getting a license.

That 2003 bid was hindered by a bombshell report from the Maine Harness Racing Commission, finding sloppy financial management, a history of lawsuits and one associate’s history of criminal convictions.

Scott’s current Maine troubles also look almost exactly like a 2016 casino campaign linked to him in Massachusetts that drew $125,000 in ethics penalties for concealing contributions that came after a settlement. Wayne’s memo says a settlement could be an option here, but it would “result in less public information concerning the underlying circumstances of the violations.”

The bid has already been suffering for lack of political support, with the Maine Legislature considering a novel move to pass the casino law, then immediately repeal it to stop it from going to voters. A new investigation certainly won’t help matters. — Michael Shepherd

Budget talks took a step forward Friday, but it was more like a stumble

The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee worked from mid-morning Friday late into the night taking vote after vote on the $6.8 billion biennial budget bill. Usually that is a milestone accomplishment in the path to enactment but this year, the only accomplishment is showing how far apart blocs of the Legislature still are with only couple of weeks until we enter the state shutdown danger zone. Yes, here’s your soundtrack.

The result, as various members came in and out of the committee room, was dozens of 6-6 votes, some 7-6 votes and some 7-4-2 votes. What does it all mean? There are either three or four budget recommendations headed to the full Legislature as soon as legislative staff can actually write all three or four versions. We’re talking thousands of pages of largely redundant work. It also means we are in a stalemate with various lawmakers continuing to draw lines in the sand that are millions of dollars apart.

There are dozens, if not hundreds of instances of that but the big problem is the same as it ever was: House and Senate Democrats are united on education funding and preserving the 3 percent surtax for education that was enacted last year by referendum. House and Senate Republicans agree that the surtax needs to go but disagree on how much of a funding increase schools should receive. Senate Republicans have presented a plan that would allocate more than $100 million more than the current year, though much of that money would be earmarked to special projects, and House Republicans on the committee oppose any major spending increase.

House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said on WVOM this morning that his caucus will not support new education funding without major reforms to the education system. There are several proposals on the table in that vein but hammering out and agreeing on the details this late in the session would be a heavy lift.

There are also major differences of opinion on changes to the tax code and the provisions of a number of social service programs. Legislative leaders will have to negotiate toward common ground, but whatever day these three or four versions of the budget go to the full Legislature will be a doozy. In addition to votes on existing proposals that are unlikely to garner enough support, there will be scads of amendments from individual members, each of which triggers a behind-the-scenes bill-writing process and lots of sitting around “waiting for paper,” as it is said at the State House.

When is panic time? Probably not yet but by the middle or end of next week the tension in Augusta, mixed with delirium from long hours of open sessions, will be as thick as the black flies and mosquitos around a Maine swamp. — Christopher Cousins

Today in A-town

The House and Senate start five-day-a-week sessions today and on many days, it is likely that they’ll meet morning and afternoon and eventually in the evening.

Near the top of the House calendar is a bill that has been garnering a bit of attention: An Act to Prohibit a Person from Providing False Testimony to a Committee of the Legislature. The bill is at risk of defeat with the House voting against it and the Senate voting last week in favor. Also at risk this morning is a resolution regarding early voting in Maine, which proposes an amendment to the Maine Constitution that would allow early voting at polling places in the 15 days preceding an election. It was defeated in the Senate and approved in the House — though not by the two-thirds majority required for a constitutional amendment.

Gov. Paul LePage has proposed two new bills, continuing his tradition of sponsoring new bills late in the legislative session after most committees have finished their work. One of the bills would implement a new, more rigorous property foreclosure process for homeowners older than 65 and the other would elevate the crime of operating a motor vehicle without proof of insurance.

There’s enough on the House’s agenda to keep them busy today for several hours, by the looks of it. The same is true for the Senate, where there are two more new bills from LePage. One would lift the requirement that legal notices be posted in newspapers and instead require them to be posted online by the state. The other would repeal laws that permit advance-deposit betting. There’s a boatload more on the calendar. We’ll keep you posted as best we can on interesting and important developments. — Christopher Cousins

Reading list

Bringing jazz to the next generation

My 12-year-old’s teacher is a music enthusiast of the best sort. The first time I entered his classroom I was greeted with a large poster of Duane Allman on one wall and Miles Davis on another. There is frequently music playing softly during the day. My boy’s soundtracks go all day long.

One of his final projects of the year is researching jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, and, as a recovering saxophone player, I can tell you the guy’s playing is largely unmatched. One of Parker’s most famous songs — which he recorded with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie — is called “Salt Peanuts.”

My boy was asking me about tributes to Parker — and something more positive to focus on than his fatal heroin overdose in 1955 — so over the weekend I was playing a version of “Salt Peanuts” by a West Coast band named Liquid Soul, of which I’ve been a fan since discovering them in college. Liquid Soul’s version morphs from traditional scat to a funky, horn-laden rap.

I could hear the 12-year-old singing the horn hook to himself last night in bed and both of my boys are downstairs singing it as I type these words. Convincing kids these days to listen to jazz is a tall order but thanks to Charlie Parker and Liquid Soul, here’s their soundtrack. You’ll be humming it later. — Christopher Cousins

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Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.