AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage came out forcefully against the York County casino ballot question Tuesday, calling Question 1 “another case of big-money, out-of-state interests using Maine voters to get a sweet deal.”

“But it’s a phony deal for Maine,” LePage said in his weekly radio address. “Supporters of Question 1 are using a bait-and-switch tactic that has nothing to do with funding schools or creating jobs. Their promises of boosting our economy are overblown.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers’ scrutiny of the casino ballot initiative will resume Wednesday, but without the involvement of key backers of the Question 1 campaign, who declined invitations to answer questions from a legislative committee.

“Under the circumstances, for any proponent of the York County direct initiative to appear before the committee in the midst of this highly charged political environment would be ill-advised,” attorney Andrew Ketterer wrote in declining an invitation sent by the Government Oversight Committee to gambling entrepreneur Shawn Scott and an associate.

On Nov. 7, voters statewide will decide whether to authorize a third casino in Maine, this one located in a yet-to-be-announced location in York County. Supporters say the proposed casino would create more than 2,000 permanent jobs and generate more than $45 million in annual tax revenue for the state.

The Question 1 campaign touts the prospects of additional money for public schools, veterans and local communities in signs and ads that sometimes refer to an “entertainment center,” but in other instances never mention the source of the revenues. In his radio address, LePage called the Question 1 campaign misleading for focusing on schools and jobs – rather than on gambling – and predicted it would merely shift money away from casinos in Bangor and Oxford.

MONEY INFLUENCING LEPAGE POSITION?

Responding to LePage, the Progress for Maine political action committee leading the Question 1 campaign sought to link the governor to the Churchill Downs company that runs Oxford Casino.

“Voters in Maine should not be surprised that Gov. LePage is opposed to a new gaming and entertainment venue given the Republican governor and the (Republican) political action committees have received tens-of-thousands of dollars from Kentucky-based Churchill Downs and its lobbying arm in Maine, Preti-Flaherty,” Progress for Maine said in a written statement.

“But he’s right about one thing: Question 1 is about creating a third casino in Maine – a gaming and entertainment venue that will create over 2,000 permanent, full-time jobs, $45 million in new tax revenue each year, and millions of dollars annually for schools, tax relief, Native American tribes and other critical state priorities,” Progress for Maine said. “Gov. LePage needs to think about Maine first and not his friends in Kentucky, because gaming is a competitive industry and Massachusetts is gearing up to capture as much revenue as possible from neighboring states.”

LePage is the highest-profile political figure to come out against Question 1. But a majority of the 2018 gubernatorial candidates oppose the York County casino proposal, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have raised questions about the campaign.

The ballot question is written in such a way that it would only allow Scott or his businesses to build the facility. Scott bankrolled the 2003 referendum that authorized Maine’s first gambling facility and sold those development rights to Penn National for $51 million, a practice he has repeated in other states. Scott and his business associates, including David Wilson, have funded much of the more than $5 million York County campaign through the Horseracing Jobs Fairness ballot question committee originally run by Scott’s sister, Lisa Scott.

“It’s a stacked deck,” LePage said. “Once again, Maine’s referendum process has been hijacked by big money, out-of-state interests hoping to pull the wool over your eyes. Before you cast your vote, remember what Question 1 is really about. It’s about gambling. Period.”

CASINO CAMPAIGN UNDER SCRUTINY

The casino campaign has been dogged by controversy from the start as petition circulators – some being paid $10 per signature – were accused of aggressive or deceptive practices. After having tens of thousands of petition signatures disqualified by the Maine Secretary of State’s Office, the campaign finally qualified for the November ballot this year.

The campaign is now the subject of an investigation by the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices into campaign finance disclosure violations or discrepancies, most notably the flow of money into the campaign through a complex network of out-of-state entities. Additionally, the state government’s watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, is reviewing the concerns raised about the ballot initiative process at the behest of the Government Oversight Committee.

Last month, that committee sent letters to nine individuals inviting them “to provide your perspectives and respond to questions from committee members.” OPEGA Director Beth Ashcroft said Tuesday that only three of the nine – Shawn Scott, Wilson and campaign treasurer Cheryl Timberlake – had responded as of Tuesday afternoon.

Timberlake, a well-known lobbyist in Augusta, is traveling outside of Maine and would be unable to attend, according to a response from her attorney, Avery Day. But Day said Timberlake “may be in the position to discuss the citizen-initiated legislation process” after the committee’s investigation is complete.

Ketterer, a former Maine attorney general representing Shawn Scott’s Capital Seven LLC, was more blunt in declining the invitations sent to Scott and Wilson. Ketterer wrote that Scott “has no perspective on or role in the York County direct initiative other than as a contributor of financial support.” He also said some committee members “have already publicly announced their motivations to use the committee and OPEGA to ‘shed light’ on” the York County proposal.

“As I made clear in my (earlier) letter, the committee has no statutory authority whatsoever to investigate or subpoena persons or entities that receive no state of Maine public funding,” Ketterer wrote. “The question then is whether someone over whom the committee has no jurisdiction, and who therefore cannot be compelled to appear before it, should voluntarily submit to questioning by its members.”

Committee co-chairman Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said he had hoped the Scotts or others would attend the meeting.

“The whole purpose of this effort is to see who is really behind this (campaign) and see who is behind the millions of dollars already being spent, and to cast some light on a process that frankly seems a little fishy,” Katz said.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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