Gambling entrepreneur hopes to strike gold again in Maine
By DAVID SHARP and MARINA VILLENEUVE
Oct. 22, 2017
PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — An out-of-state gambling entrepreneur pocketed tens of millions of dollars after his successful referendum to create Maine's first casino in Bangor. Critics say he's poised to do it again.
Shawn Scott has emerged as a key backer of a new casino proposal on the Nov. 7 ballot after his sister retreated from her fundraising role amid an investigation over the source of $4.3 million in donations.
Critics say Scott is abusing the citizen referendum process by buying his way onto the ballot, much the way he did in 2003 in Bangor. He had quickly sold that casino.
"It's a nice trick. It makes him a boatload of money up front and then he can wash his hands of it," said voter Bill Harnsberger, of Portland.
Voters will have the final say on the proposal for the state's third casino at a yet-to-be-known location in York County. The referendum is worded in such a way that only Scott or one of his entities could run it.
Supporters say the casino would be a boon for schools. Opponents of the referendum are calling it a "wicked shady deal" in advertising.
Republican Gov. Paul LePage says the proposal is motivated by greed and that a state with 1.3 million people can't support a third casino.
"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."
In Maine, the pro-casino Progress for Maine political action committee has enlisted the services of the same consulting firm that helped convince United Kingdom voters to leave the European Union. The casino campaign has reported spending more than $1.5 million on campaign expenses, on top of over $4 million to get the measure on the ballot.
Scott's past dealings have been profitable but checkered. His ventures have included opening hotel casinos, racetrack casinos and video poker. But there were setbacks, as well. He's been denied licenses, and sued many times.
In 2003, Scott was largely unknown in Maine when he financed a successful referendum campaign to create the state's first casino. He quickly sold out to Penn National Gaming when questions were raised by state officials about his financial dealings, associates and lawsuits. The Oxford Casino became Maine's second casino after a referendum in 2010.
Scott shifted his focus to international business efforts before it became known that he was behind a failed casino proposal last year in Massachusetts. The PAC behind that effort was fined in Massachusetts for campaign reporting law violations, and a similar investigation is underway in Maine.
Both Scott and his sister weren't immediately available for comment. But he told a radio station that he intends to operate the southern Maine casino, not sell the license.
Regardless of who operates the casino, the business would give a year-round boost to what's now a seasonal-based tourism economy in the region, said Jim Albert, a restaurant owner in York County.
"Anytime you can get an economic hub such as this, it's a boon," he said.
Jenny Freeman, a retiree from Kittery, believes a day of reckoning has come when the rich can usurp what's supposed to be a grassroots petition effort. "It's a bastardization of the citizen initiative process," she said.
Critics have found the casino campaign claims to be dubious.
The latest TV ads touting Question 1 on the ballot don't even mention the word "casino." Supporters say the casino would create 2,000 jobs and generate more than $45 million in tax revenue.
Chris Vermilion, a software engineer from Portland, said he likes to go to casinos. But he has a problem with referendum process being used in a "blatantly cynical" way to profit a handful of individuals.
"I'd love for there to be casino in York County. I'm probably as pro-casino as they come. But this particular process, it's sort of gross," he said.