AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to investigate the referendum campaign for a new casino in York County.

The legislative investigation becomes the second effort by the state to shed light on who is funding the campaign and who is likely to benefit if voters pass the initiative in November.

The casino campaign, Horseracing Jobs Fairness, and its backers already are the subject of an investigation by the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, which is working to determine who is bankrolling the campaign. Casino backers have spent $4.3 million so far to collect the voter signatures needed to get the proposal on the Nov. 7 ballot.

One of the campaign’s primary financial backers appears to be Miami-based real estate developer Lisa Scott, the sister of Shawn Scott, an international gambling entrepreneur who won voter approval to add slot machines to Bangor’s struggling horse track in 2003, bringing Maine the first of its two casinos. Shawn Scott then sold those rights to Penn National – which still operates what is now Bangor’s successful Hollywood Casino – for $51 million as regulators scrutinized his businesses and associates.

An additional political action committee, Progress for Maine, also has registered in support of the casino referendum. Initial finance reports indicate the PAC has paid $95,000 to Goddard Gunster, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm that was widely credited with helping Brexit campaigners win their ballot measure in 2016 to pull the United Kingdom out of the European Union.

The legislative committee’s vote Wednesday sets in motion an investigation by the committee’s staff in the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which is expected to deliver its initial findings in September, with a follow-up meeting set in October just weeks before the measure goes before voters. The 12-member oversight committee, which has a membership split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, serves as the Legislature’s investigative arm.

Neither investigation is likely to keep the question off the ballot, but the results could influence voter perceptions about whether the proposal deserves their support.

Lisa Scott initially filed paperwork showing she was the only source of funds for the casino campaign. But as a result of questioning by the ethics commission staff, she amended her filings and registered three additional ballot question committees, including one in her name and two in the names of companies she heads, Miami Development Corp. and International Development Corp. Both Scott and the company committees report contributing large sums to Horseracing Jobs Fairness. As of Wednesday there were four ballot question committees linked to Lisa Scott or her companies.

Based on campaign finance reports, Progress for Maine is headed by Charlene Cushing of Farmington. So far, it has reported only one contribution of $200 from a donor in California. But the report also shows the PAC has incurred over $330,000 in unpaid debts and obligations, including the costs for Goddard Gunster, which has been hired for campaign consulting, website development and social media coordination.

The reports show that another company, American General Corp., also based in California, has made more than $11,000 worth of in-kind contributions to Progress for Maine, including travel expenses such as airfare, hotel lodging and car rentals for two people to travel to Maine this month. It remains unclear what, if any, connection exists between Progress for Maine and the ballot question committees linked to Lisa Scott.

A license for a casino in York County is estimated to be worth as much as $150 million, officials say, and the ballot question going to voters this fall is written in a way that allows only Shawn Scott or one of his companies to apply for the first license.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, a member of the oversight committee, said Wednesday that he hopes the committee’s investigation would “shed light” on the campaign by bringing additional scrutiny beyond the ethics commission probe.

“What we are trying to do is bring this to the front page of the newspaper,” Diamond said. “And have people talk about what they see going on, some of the concerns with this. I think it’s time that this sort of thing is attached to the referendum process.”

Diamond said the addition of another casino in Maine would have economic ramifications for the state’s two existing casinos, in Oxford and Bangor, as well as their host communities.

Wednesday’s vote on the casino campaign investigation drew the committee into a discussion about the broader issue of whether the initiative and referendum process needs a thorough review, with an eye toward either amending the state’s constitution or enacting a new law to change the process.

Rep. Jeff Pierce, R-Dresden, an oversight committee member, said that while he voted for the casino investigation, he has concerns about singling out the casino campaign and its backers. Pierce said he also is going to ask to have OPEGA conduct a larger review of the ballot question process.

He said there was little doubt that lawmakers are concerned the process is being “hijacked” by individuals or groups with vested interests and is not being used as it was originally intended under the state constitution – to give voters an avenue to address issues that weren’t being acted on by the Legislature.

Diamond and others on the committee said they didn’t disagree, but the scope of that type of review would take more time than the weeks that remain before the fall elections.

But there’s a concern that well-funded groups, including many from out of state, are taking questions to the ballot that represent their own particular agendas.

The oversight committee is expected to hear its first report from OPEGA on Sept. 21 and will meet again in October to discuss the topic. The committee may vote in September to call in witnesses for testimony in October. The committee is the only legislative panel with the power of subpoena, meaning it can legally compel witnesses to appear before it.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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