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Ethics commission says slashing casino campaign fine was in state's best interests

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The Maine ethics commission voted Wednesday to accept a $100,000 payment from the backers of a failed 2017 ballot question campaign that asked voters to approve a York County casino.

The 4-0 vote could be the final chapter in a three-year saga that involved a murky money trail stretching from Maine to the Northern Mariana Islands, Miami and parts of Asia and the Caribbean.

Overall, the campaign – financed with funds provided by companies with ties to casino entrepreneur Shawn Scott and headed by his sister, Lisa Scott – spent nearly $9 million getting the measure on the ballot and courting votes. The question would have given Shawn Scott’s company the sole rights to a casino license in southern Maine, valued at an estimated $150 million.

After a lengthy investigation, the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices voted in December to fine Lisa Scott’s companies and the campaign’s treasurer, Cheryl Timberlake, $500,000 for late and inaccurate campaign finance reporting. The fine was appealed to Kennebec County Superior Court, but the court had not issued a decision.

Under the settlement agreement with the commission, Lisa Scott and Timberlake will split the fine, with each paying $50,000. They did not respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday.

STAFF RECOMMENDED LOWERING FINE

In a memo published Tuesday, the commission’s staff recommended lowering the fine because Lisa Scott lives in St. Kitts and has no assets in this country that could be seized to satisfy the penalty.

Commission members disclosed Wednesday that they have been involved in private negotiations with attorneys for Lisa Scott and Timberlake, so the vote to settle was not a surprising one.

Commissioner William Lee III, a Democrat from Waterville and an attorney, said the uncertain outcome of the court case, coupled with the difficulties and cost of trying to collect the full fine, made the decision to accept the reduced penalty an easy one.

“I honestly didn’t think we would see a nickel from this,” Lee said.

Others on the commission also said the state’s best interests were being served by the settlement, and the commission was still sending a strong enforcement message about abiding by campaign finance laws.

Voters rejected the casino question in a landslide vote, with 83 percent opposing the measure.

Commissioner Brad Pattershall, a Republican from Freeport and an attorney, said the election result was a clear signal that the Scotts’ business was not wanted in Maine.

BALLOT INITIATIVES IN THE SPOTLIGHT

The commission’s original punishment was almost 10 times more than the previous record fine, a $50,250 penalty imposed in 2014 against the National Organization for Marriage for not registering and filing campaign finance reports as a ballot question committee in the 2009 elections.

The casino campaign could have faced a maximum penalty of as much as $4.5 million.

The campaign also came under the scrutiny of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee in August 2017. A month later, the committee staff released a report with a flow chart showing a dizzying array of companies and funders from across the globe that were funneling money into the casino campaign in Maine.

The casino effort became a poster child for what critics view as the exploitation of Maine’s ballot initiative process. Critics say the process is easily hijacked by out-of-state special interests, and with enough money, voters can be asked to approve just about anything – including a law that would provide a financial windfall to just one person or one company. In the case of the casino, that would have been Shawn Scott.

But efforts to reform the ballot initiative process in Maine have gained little traction in the Legislature, including proposals to increase the number of voter signatures needed to get on the ballot, or ones that would require a geographically equal distribution of signatures from both of Maine’s congressional districts. Bills to prohibit paying workers to collect voter signatures also have been defeated.

SOME FUNDING SOURCES DISCLOSED

One bill that did pass into law this year requires those who donate more than $100,000 to a ballot question committee to disclose their top five sources of funding for the donation.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, was signed into law by Gov. Paul LePage in June.

Since 2016, voters have been asked to decide seven ballot questions, including the York County casino, background checks for private gun sales, raising Maine’s minimum wage, expanding Medicaid and tacking a 3 percent surcharge on household income over $200,000 to help fund public education. Some of the measures were approved, some were rejected and some were altered by the Legislature after they passed.

In November, voters will consider a proposal to impose an additional tax on income above $128,400 to expand home care services for the elderly and disabled. The “Act To Establish Universal Home Care for Seniors and Persons with Disabilities,” a proposal from the Maine People’s Alliance, is the latest example of progressive groups using Maine’s citizen initiative process to enact policy at the ballot box rather than through the Legislature.

In February, the campaign received a $150,000 infusion from a group backed by billionaire philanthropist George Soros. Reforming the ballot initiative process also has been an issue discussed by candidates for governor in 2018.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: thisdog

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