AUGUSTA –– The campaign to place a southern Maine casino referendum on the November ballot paid two organizations more than $1.9 million over a two-week period in January to gather petition signatures.

All told, the Horseracing Jobs Fairness campaign spent $2.6 million on its failed effort to gather enough signatures to qualify for the Nov. 8 ballot, according to campaign finance reports filed this week with the state. The bulk of that money went to just two organizations fielding a small army of paid signature-gatherers.

Olympic Consulting, a Lewiston-based political consulting firm operated by Stavros Mendros, received $755,000 between Jan. 6 and Jan. 19, plus an additional $11,000 since then. A former state legislator, Mendros has been at the center of two court challenges to the validity of signatures gathered for the casino campaign and for a separate referendum seeking to legalize marijuana.

A second firm that specializes in coordinating petition campaigns, Wyoming-based Silver Bullet LLC, received $1,195,000 for the casino effort between Jan. 5 and Jan. 19, according to the campaign finance reports.

Despite the spending, the casino campaign failed to qualify for the ballot because Secretary of State Matt Dunlap invalidated tens of thousands of signatures gathered by the paid workers.

On Thursday, a Superior Court judge ruled that Horseracing Jobs Fairness failed to prove that the Maine Secretary of State’s Office erred when invalidating 55,776 of the 91,294 signatures submitted for certification in February. The same judge, Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy, reversed Dunlap’s decision invalidating signatures on the marijuana legalization referendum, however.

Multimillion-dollar referendum campaigns are no longer unusual in Maine.

In 2009, for instance, one political action committee fighting to allow same-sex marriage in the state spent more than $4.5 million. Also, the ballot question committee seeking to ban bear hunting using bait and trapping in Maine spent $2.5 million last year.

But those figures were for the entire campaign – including television advertising through Election Day – while the nearly $2.7 million spent by Horseracing Jobs Fairness funded only the signature-gathering process.

Campaigns for the other ballot questions that fought for space on the November ballot have until Monday to file their fundraising and expenditures reports for the first quarter of 2016.

The casino campaign has been controversial from the start and sparked debate about the adequacy of Maine’s laws regulating the citizens petition process.

The proposed referendum would have asked voters whether they support authorizing a casino in an unnamed location in York County. But the referendum was written in such a way that it would only allow one person, casino developer Shawn Scott, to build the facility.

Scott was the man behind a 2003 referendum campaign that led to Maine’s first combination horse racetrack/slots casino – or “racino” – on Bangor’s Main Street. Two months after the referendum, Scott sold the Bangor Historic Track and the racino rights to Penn National for an estimated $51 million. Penn National still operates what is now Hollywood Casino.

Scott was never named in the York County referendum materials. But his sister, Lisa Scott of Miami, Florida, was the sole financier of the campaign, funneling $2.9 million into the petition drive in increments ranging from $5,000 to $800,000 during January alone. Lisa Scott could not be immediately reached for comment Friday.

The campaign’s aggressive signature-gathering efforts also drew criticism and called attention to the largely underground, national industry that has sprung up around referendum campaigns.

Professional signature gatherers flew in from across the country to work for Olympic Consulting and Silver Bullet, reportedly lured by offers of up to $10 per signature (compared to $1 to $2 per signature for other campaigns) as well as free hotels and transportation.

“All expenses are paid, including fully paid air travel in/out from anywhere in the US (meaning you don’t have to put up the money to book the ticket, we can do so for you),” read a Jan. 11 post on one Facebook page aimed at petition circulators. “Transportation from airport to hotel, fully paid for accommodation at a nice Super 8 hotel with indoor heated swimming pool and hot tub … rental car and gas and tolls.”

In addition to the $1.9 million paid to the two consulting firms, the campaign spent more than $130,000 on hotel rooms – including $43,401 to the Westbrook Super 8 alone – for signature gatherers and other staff during the first three months of the year. Many thousands more were paid for car rentals, airfare or other transportation costs.

But there were also complaints about some petition circulators who were accused of blatantly misrepresenting the purpose of the casino referendum – which is not against the law – or not following the rules requiring out-of-state circulators to have a Maine resident witness all signatures. Some signature gatherers subsequently complained that they were never paid for their work.