AUGUSTA, Maine —Two Lewiston men who helped organize a statewide campaign aimed at bringing a casino to downtown Lewiston endured a barrage of questions Thursday during a five-hour hearing before the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.
The commission tabled action on the case, however, because it was unable to hear from all the witnesses it had hoped to Thursday.
At stake is whether Stavros Mendros and Peter Robinson will be fined under the state’s campaign finance laws for allegedly misleading state investigators and the media during and after the failed 2011 vote.
But both Robinson and Mendros said Thursday they were the ones misled by the campaign’s financial backers, a pair of Maryland businessmen, Scott Nash and Ryan Hill, who both pumped money into the campaign.
Mendros and Robinson also said they were never told a third person, Chase Burns, an Oklahoma businessman involved in the gambling industry, also contributed $130,000 to the campaign.
“I’ve never heard of Chase Burns,” Robinson said.
Mendros said he never learned of Burns’ contributions until Mendros’ attorney, Mark Walker told him about it in July.
After obtaining bank records from Nash and Hill, ethics commission investigators learned that Burns also donated money to the PAC.
In June, Burns was linked to a gambling scandal involving a yacht in Florida that was purchased to “entertain politicians,” according to reports in the Oklahoman newspaper.
Burns has denied any wrongdoing in the scandal, which led to the resignation of Florida’s lieutenant governor, Jennifer Carroll, in March.
The ethics commission tabled a decision on the matter until its next meeting in January because it was unable to take testimony from Nash.
If the commission finds Mendros and Robinson knowingly violated state ethics laws, they could face civil penalties of more than $30,000.
Thursday was also the first time that the commission’s staff named Brent Littlefield as being involved in the casino effort. Littlefield is the top political consultant working for Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s re-election campaign.
During the the failed 2011 casino bid, LePage spoke in opposition to the measure. Littlefield has declined comment on the issues before the ethics commission and has not been asked to appear before it.
Hill appeared before the commission via a closed-circuit television link Thursday, offering testimony that countered that of Mendros and Robinson.
Mendros said his biggest concern during the campaign was never where the money was coming from but that it simply wasn’t coming.
“My concern was where the heck was the rest of the money,” Mendros told the commission’s executive director, Jonathan Wayne, during questioning Thursday.
Mendros said he was led to believe the campaign’s financial backers were going to contribute $2 million but in the end, they contributed less than $400,000.
Details from an investigation conducted by ethics commission staff released in October revealed that a pair of political action committees that were managed by Mendros and Robinson misreported where campaign donations came from.
The PACs — Green Jobs for ME and the People of Lewiston-Auburn — “reported that GT Source, a Georgia corporation, was the sole source of $412,000 in contributions,” a memo to the commission from its investigative staff states. “In fact, GT Source did not contribute any funds to the PACs.”
The July 1 memo states that contributions to the campaign, totaling $388,000, came from two Maryland companies and an Oklahoma businessman — all of whom were involved in the casino industry at the time.
Much of the money collected for the two PACs was paid to Dome Messaging, an Arlington, Va.-based company set up by Littlefield, which purchased television and radio advertising for the casino campaign in Maine.
Thursday’s testimony wound in and around a collection of shell companies that were formed by Hill, Nash and GT Source’s CEO Dwayne Graham. Much of the revenue filtered to the campaign came from M5, a limited liability corporation formed by the men in Maine meant to own and operate the casino if voters approved it.
Graham also told the Sun Journal during the campaign in 2011 that he was a financial contributor to the PACs.
While Robinson’s attorney, Elizabeth Germani, was questioning Hill on Thursday, it became clear that Graham — who was made president of M5 — had contributed no money to the corporation, although he was given 200 shares of the shell corporation.
Germani also questioned Hill about another company he and Nash created, Wild West Gaming Inc.
She said Hill had presented the company to the casino backers as a going concern but bank records from the time show the company had relatively little cash.
“Frankly I think these banking records show quite the contrary,” Germani said noting the firm had $303.43 in its checking account in both June and July of 2011.
“Do you remember that in July of 2011 there was no income coming into WWG and nothing coming out of that account?” Germani asked.
Hill said the bank records may not show deposits for the company but there was income. Germani said by September of 2011, the bank records showed the account was overdrawn.
“You had a negative $462 in your account, do you remember that?” Germani asked.
“I might have screwed something up,” Hill said. “I don’t remember.”
But Germani pointed out that while his one company had a negative balance, Hill wired more than $120,000 to another Maine shell company, Great Falls Entertainment — an LLC that was set up to take ownership of Bates Mill No. 5 provided the casino referendum passed.
Hill also confirmed that he, Nash and Graham visited Lewiston in June of 2011 and toured the mill building with Mendros, Robinson and city officials, including then-mayor Larry Gilbert and Lincoln Jeffers, the city’s director of community and economic development. The group also met with some of the local financial supporters of the casino and the partners of Great Falls Entertainment, Hill confirmed.
Robinson told the commission he had no motive to intentionally misreport the origin of PACs’ funding. He also noted that while he was the official treasurer of one of the first PACs set up for the casino campaign, Green Jobs for ME, he was not the treasurer of the second PAC, the People of Lewiston-Auburn.
That PAC’s treasurer was former Lewiston Police Chief Bill Welch, but according to Robinson, Welch had no involvement in the finances of the PAC.
The second PAC was set up at the insistence of Littlefield, according to Mendros. He said Littlefield wanted a different name for the PAC but also wanted it to appear to be the efforts of more “prominent members of the community” so Gilbert, who supported the casino effort and Welch agreed to put their names on the effort.
Gilbert has told the Sun Journal both he and Welch were on the PACs “in name only.”
Both Germani and Walker, Mendros’ attorney, have urged the commission to dismiss the case against their clients noting there’s little evidence to suggest the men intentionally violated state campaign finance rules.
Mendros has called the effort against him, “a witch hunt” and Thursday he elaborated on his frustration with the commission’s staff trying to explain why he has been less than cooperative with their investigation.
But Mendros also noted his company, Olympic Consulting, was paid $25,000 for work on the campaign. He also again said the campaign for the casino, which he started with Robinson, was wrested from his control by Hill and Nash, who insisted Littlefield’s Dome make all the decisions.
When asked by Wayne, the commission’s executive director, if he was “shut out,” Mendros said he was.
“It wasn’t suppose to be that way, but yeah, I was,” Mendros said. “Nothing went through us. They didn’t want us to have our hands on it, they wanted everything to go directly to Dome. All the decisions were Dome’s.”