LEWISTON, Maine — Circulators hired to gather signatures to bring another casino to Maine have finished their work, but accusations of how those signatures were obtained and whether circulators were adequately paid for the work have just begun.
According to two circulators hired to gather signatures in Androscoggin County, petitions were circulated without the required witness of a registered Maine voter. These circulators, and five others, said on Monday they had not yet been paid for the work, despite promises they were to be paid Wednesday last week.
Late afternoon Monday, campaign treasurer Cheryl Timberlake said they hadn’t been paid because their work has not yet been validated.
One of the circulators became so violent about his overdue payment that Augusta police issued no trespass and cease harassment notices against him when he threatened to harm Timberlake at her State Street office, she said.
Harness Racing Jobs Fairness, which launched an effort to bring slot machines or a casino to York County, hired Olympic Consulting, owned and operated by former lawmaker Stavros Mendros of Lewiston, to gather signatures to bring a casino referendum to voters in November. The deadline to submit the required signatures to the secretary of state is Feb. 1. Mendros’ company was paid $111,935, of which $67,000 was to pay circulators to gather signatures in the field, according to state campaign finance reports.
The $150,000 petition effort is being financed entirely by Lisa Scott, a Miami developer and the sister of casino developer Shawn Scott, who bought the Bangor Raceway and then bankrolled a 2003 campaign to allow slots there. That operation, which he sold for $51 million, is now the Hollywood Casino.
According to circulator John Merchant of Florida, he was hired by Mendros to gather signatures for up to $10 per signature. Mendros paid for Merchant’s round-trip flight to Maine and for his hotel bill up until Friday, Jan. 15, when Mendros stopped paying that bill.
On Jan. 11, Merchant received a $1,600 check, written on Mendros’ personal account; that check was returned for nonpayment. Merchant received two other checks from Mendros, one for $1,350, dated Jan. 13, and another for $930, dated Jan. 20, that he hasn’t tried to cash, he said.
The checks don’t cover the estimated $5,400 Merchant believes he is owed, including $467 in hotel charges from the Ramada Inn in Lewiston from Jan. 15 to Jan. 21.
On Thursday, Jan. 21, Merchant sent an angry email to Timberlake, threatening to contact Maine’s media if he was not paid that day. He sent a second email the following day, and then went to Timberlake’s office, where he demanded payment.
According to Timberlake, Merchant is not entitled to be paid until his petitions are validated with proof the signatures were each witnessed by a registered Maine voter. That is a process that must be done by Olympic Consulting as the signature vendor, Timberlake said. Once that is done, she processes the payment.
Timberlake said Merchant threatened her by email, fax and voicemail and in person.
She said given that “we’ve had a lot of gun violence across this country,” she felt compelled to call the Augusta Police Department to intervene.
“We’re happy to employ people,” she said, “but at the end of the day, you don’t resort to threats.”
On Friday, Merchant left his only copy of the police department’s harassment and trespass notices with Sun Journal staff, saying he had no intention of ever returning to Maine and wouldn’t need that paperwork.
Merchant has since returned to Florida.
On Monday, a second circulator contacted the Sun Journal to say he hadn’t been paid and that while he had been hired to witness signatures for nonresident circulators, he never actually witnessed anything.
George Stanley of Greene, a man who has clashed with town officials there over ongoing code violations at his business, said he was busy collecting signatures himself and didn’t watch the out-of-state circulators as required.
“I was supposed to be witnessing people and I was nowhere near them,” he said.
Angry that he hadn’t been paid, Stanley met with Secretary of State Matt Dunlap on Monday morning and lodged a formal complaint against Olympic Consulting.
He claims to be owed thousands of dollars, and that the hundreds of signatures gathered by circulators were fake.
“There are irregularities and improprieties and criminal behavior all over this thing,” he said. “If Stavros could have just paid me, I would have kept my mouth shut.”
Asked about the accusation that signatures weren’t being witnessed, Timberlake said she wasn’t “sure of the process used, but the statute is very specific. You need to meet the letter of the law and have Maine registered voters” witness each signature.
If that didn’t happen, she said, “that would be a concern.”
Michael Gambrell, a circulator who flew to Maine from Florida on Mendros’ personal assurance that his travel, hotel and signature work would be paid for, said this is the second time he’s come to Maine to gather signatures for Olympic Consulting. He said he wasn’t fully paid the first time, but that this time, he’s owed more than $3,000 and had been promised payment for the past five days.
Gambrell arrived in Maine last week and said he did have a registered Maine voter witness his work, but after he turned in his petitions and calculated what he was owed, Mendros stopped communicating with him.
“He’s become Casper-like,” Gambrell said, refusing to accept or return phone calls.
Gambrell called the casino project “extremely unorganized,” ignoring basic business practices.
“It’s like a dead person is running this” campaign, he said. “Stavros is nowhere around. Business is nowhere around. Consideration is nowhere around. Stupidity is the only thing around here — and a lack of communication.”
Timberlake said if circulators are not happy with their payments from Olympic, there’s really nothing she can do.
“They need to go back to the vendor they contracted with and work it out,” she said.
Phone calls to Mendros were not returned, but at 6 p.m. Monday, he sent a text saying, “The wire just came through at 4. I’m about to pay them all.”
At 6:30 p.m., about a dozen circulators who were staying at America’s Best Value Inn on Center Street in Auburn were standing in an upstairs hallway, waiting for Mendros to deliver their checks. He told them he would be at the inn with their payment by 7:30 p.m.
Gambrell said he and others were prepared to take Mendros to court for the money they’re owed if he didn’t pay.
“I will do what I need to do to get the money I worked for,” he said.
Mendros arrived at the inn a few minutes before 8 p.m. to distribute the payments.
According to Kristen Schulze Muszynski, communications director for the secretary of state’s office, Dunlap had taken the accusations about nonpayment of circulators and lack of witnesses to signatures very seriously. On Monday, he alerted the Office of the Attorney General to several similar complaints he had received in recent days.
“We’re taking this very seriously,” she said, and if the casino referendum drive moves forward, the secretary of state will keep these complaints in mind as signatures go through the verification process before the petition for referendum is granted.
On Monday, the manager of America’s Best Value Inn, who would identify himself only as Dennis, said Mendros booked and paid for 20 rooms for circulators about two weeks ago. The rooms are paid through Tuesday morning, at which point Dennis said everyone is expected to check out.