AUGUSTA, Maine — A lobbyist hastily hired by an offshore firm run by controversial developer Shawn Scott told a confrontational panel of Maine legislators Wednesday that the firm is behind the 2017 ballot question to add a casino in York County.
He also said that if Maine voters pass the question, the firm plans to sell the rights, with the hearing causing a top lawmaker to blast the plan’s backers for “major corruption.”
The hearing before the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee saw the first admission of Bridge Capital’s involvement in the effort, which prompted questions about the company’s past in emerging markets in Asia, where one of its casinos was seized by the authoritarian Laotian government in 2015 and sold over alleged corruption and tax evasion.
The testimony from Portland lobbyist Dan Riley also confirmed what was obvious to many observers: Backers of the proposal plan to sell the rights to the facility if voters approve it, just as Scott did with the Bangor Raceway after a 2003 campaign that led to him selling the rights in 2004 to what became Hollywood Casino.
“I think we have major corruption issues in front of us here,” Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, the committee’s co-chairman, said after the hearing. “I would just say that if the government of Laos thinks you’re corrupt, we have a major problem.”
The question qualified for Maine’s ballot in January, and it’s written in a way that would make Scott, who lives in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and his associates at Northern Mariana Islands-based Bridge Capital the only people who would be able win the license for the new casino.
Bridge Capital is run by Scott and CEO John Baldwin, each of whose net worth exceeds $100 million, a federal judge wrote in 2014. The campaign has been backed by $4.2 million through January from Scott’s sister, Lisa Scott, who has kept a low profile, but promised 800 construction jobs and 1,000 permanent jobs if a casino is built.
On Wednesday, Riley became the first person to testify in public on behalf of the casino backers, saying he was hired directly by a Bridge Capital lawyer in an email he received at 12:45 a.m. and saw less than four hours before the 9 a.m. hearing before the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
Citing that tight timeframe, Riley said he wasn’t prepared to answer many questions the panel had, including whether or not Bridge Capital provided the money Lisa Scott has used to back the bid. He said he has never had contact with Horseracing Jobs Fairness, the ballot question committee funded by Lisa Scott.
However, Riley said the company’s “game plan” is to sell the license if approved. He also said Bridge Capital was in talks to buy Scarborough Downs before the racetrack was provisionally sold to another investment group in a transaction announced last week, and backers have talked to several municipalities about the possibility of a casino.
Scott has become famous for pumping value into facilities bought relatively cheaply by persuading voters to allow slots there, such as he did in Bangor and Louisiana, where he sold a facility in 2001 for more than $130 million after buying it for $10 million without cooperating with a suitability investigation for a license.
Scott’s Maine activities have also followed him, especially because of a 2003 state Harness Racing Commission report alleging “sloppy, if not irresponsible” financial management at his companies, flagging his involvement in 37 lawsuits in four states between 1992 and 2000 and documenting a top employee’s history of convictions for assault, theft and other offenses. He sold casino rights in Bangor without getting a license.
Concerns on the panel swirled around Scott and Bridge Capital’s past, particularly in Laos, where the company has denied the authoritarian government’s allegations. However, Maine has no statewide gaming system, which has left the establishment of casinos up to individual referendums that established the existing facilities in Bangor and Oxford.
The committee’s co-chairmen, Mason and Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, oppose the proposal. The hearing they called is uncommon, since the Maine Legislature usually sends questions initiated by voters to the ballot without much fanfare. Lawmakers can’t stop citizen initiatives from going on the ballot, but they can put competing measures on the same subjects alongside them.
At one point, Sen. Ronald Collins, R-Wells, walked out of the hearing room after saying the “slick operators” backing the casino would try to sway voters near Election Day with “slick advertising” without regard for Maine’s gaming system.
“It’s not a company that we want operating in Maine,” Luchini said after the hearing.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the lobbyist’s first name. It is Dan Riley.