AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s panel on campaign finance and ethics unanimously voted Thursday to expand its investigation into a failed 2011 campaign to bring a casino to downtown Lewiston.
The Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices decided a trio of out-of-state businessmen who funded the campaign and hired a political consultant in Virginia to produce campaign material and buy advertising could face steep civil fines for not reporting their activities as a political action committee.
The men, Dwayne Graham, Ryan Hill and Scott Nash, were partners in a limited liability company formed in Maine and meant to own and operate the casino if it had passed.
That company, M5, paid the Virginia-based Dome Messaging, a company operated by Brent Littlefield — a top political consultant for Republican Gov. Paul LePage — to perform a host of campaign services, according to a contract between Littlefield and Nash that has been entered into the commission’s public record.
Based on that contract, Littlefield was paid $7,500 per month in September and October 2011 and $2,500 for the month of November.
The contract included a bonus of $50,000 for Littlefield if the statewide ballot initiative had passed.
The contract also included a nondisclosure statement requiring Nash and all parties involved in the campaign to “not disclose to any media source” the participants in Dome Messaging.
Hill and Nash are based in Maryland and Graham is in Georgia.
All three have ties to gambling or slot-machine manufacturing industries.
Last week, the commission took testimony from a pair of Lewiston men, Stavros Mendros and Peter Robinson, who worked on the campaign and helped form a pair of PACs meant to finance it. Robinson served as treasurer for the first PAC, Green Jobs for ME.
Under oath last week, Mendros testified that Littlefield wanted the group to form a separate PAC with new officers. The new PAC, the People of Lewiston-Auburn Committee, was led by former Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert. Former Lewiston police Chief Bill Welch was listed as the PAC’s treasurer.
Welch, however, never filed the required campaign finance reports, so Robinson did that, even though he wasn’t an official on the PAC.
Mendros and Robinson face possible civil penalties for misreporting where the campaign’s funding sources came from.
Both have said they relied on information provided to them by others, including Littlefield, Hill, Nash and Graham.
Graham told the Sun Journal in a 2011 phone interview that he was helping to fund the campaign, but the commission’s investigation revealed he did not contribute money to the effort.
The commission instead found, based on subpoenaed bank records, that Nash, Hill and a man from Oklahoma, Chase Burns, were funding the effort.
But those funds were being paid directly to Littlefield by M5 and not the People of Lewiston-Auburn Committee, as reported by Robinson.
Burns, who pumped $130,000 into the campaign in its waning weeks, was linked to a gambling scandal in June involving a yacht in Florida that was purchased to “entertain politicians,” according to the Oklahoman newspaper.
Burns has denied any wrongdoing in the scandal, which led to the resignation of Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll in March.
The vote Thursday may take some of the pressure off Robinson and Mendros, who were facing civil penalties of $32,500 for falsely reporting the source of $412,000 in out-of-state campaign contributions.
While Hill appeared before the commission via closed-circuit television link to testify last week, Nash, Graham, Littlefield and Burns have not yet been put under oath on the case. It remained uncertain whether Littlefield would be asked to testify in the case.
What is clear is the commission now wants to hear more from at least Nash, Graham and Hill.
Commission member Michael Healy questioned whether the three were actually acting as a PAC and said the commission should work to determine that.
“I really thought we should expand the notice to basically put all those parties on notice that at the end of this hearing, the evidence may lead us potentially to some other conclusion,” Healy said.
He said he was curious about why Welch, treasurer for the People of Lewiston-Auburn PAC, never filed any finance reports with the ethics commission.
Ethics commission Chairman Jonathan Wayne said Thursday the decision means the investigation will now seek to determine whether M5 was being operated as a PAC in Maine and whether those behind it should have filed campaign-finance reports.
Mendros said he was somewhat relieved by the commission’s vote. He has said previously all control of the campaign had been turned over to Littlefield at the urging of Hill and Nash.
“I’m glad they are finally focusing their attention on the decision-makers,” Mendros said. “I’m happy they are finally looking in the right direction because we were out of the loop, and I don’t see how they can fine us anything.”
Attempts to reach both Nash and Littlefield on Thursday were unsuccessful. Littlefield previously declined to comment on the matter.
The commission is not scheduled to meet on the matter again until sometime in early February.