AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine ethics regulators on Friday levied $500,000 in fines against four political committees backing the York County casino referendum on Tuesday’s ballot, a total that is 10 times their record sum and a lawyer for backers said will be challenged in court.
The penalty comes four days before Mainers vote on the casino referendum, which appears as Question 1 on the ballot. A Critical Insights poll released earlier this week said 49 percent of voters are opposed to it with 40 percent supporting it and 11 percent undecided.
The bid is backed by Northern Mariana Island developer Shawn Scott, who has led a $9.6 million effort that has included $6 million from Capital Seven LLC, a Nevada company that he controls and would be the only entity allowed rights to the casino under the ballot question.
A Maine Ethics Commission investigation that began in June has dominated recent headlines about the Scott-led campaign. It began after Scott’s sister, Lisa Scott, disclosed in April that $4.3 million in funds originally attributed her donations to a political committee that she ran came from Capital Seven and Regent Able Associate Co., a Japanese consulting company.
The penalties were for late campaign finance reporting. Commissioner Meri Lowry, a Democrat from Portland, said Lisa Scott’s efforts looked designed to keep her brother “safely in the back room” and away from a public-facing campaign.
However, Bruce Merrill, an attorney for Lisa Scott, said in a statement that the commission “put its thumb on the scale of Tuesday’s election” and that its decision will be appealed in court, saying proceedings were “so flawed” that they violated due process requirements.
The panel subpoenaed thousands of pages of documents from backers. Exhibits included email exchanges with reporters, including one where Lisa Scott responded to January questions from Bangor Daily News by holding herself up as the casino project’s developer.
Jonathan Wayne, the commission’s executive director, said in a memo that evidence didn’t support that. Instead, Wayne said she was the “front person for the project in Maine” and the overseer of the signature drive that qualified it for the ballot in January.
At a Tuesday hearing, Lisa Scott and Augusta lobbyist Cheryl Timberlake traded blame for reporting issues. Timberlake said she believed that Lisa Scott was funding the bid, but Lisa Scott said Timberlake knew she wasn’t and that she relied on the lobbyist for guidance.
Lisa Scott stepped back from the public campaign in August. Earlier that month, Shawn Scott and a partner, David Wilson, who runs a firm working in China to support the American EB-5 program, set up a committee, Progress For Maine, that has fronted the bid ever since.
Taken together, the penalties shatter the ethics commission’s previous penalty record: It fined the National Organization for Marriage just over $50,000 in 2014 after a five-year investigation that found the anti-gay marriage group shielded the names of its donors.
Commissioners reduced the penalties from a sum of $4.6 million after considering mitigating factors, including Lisa Scott’s experience in Maine elections. Lawyers for casino backers disputed those base amounts and repeatedly suggested court challenges during this week’s proceedings, urging commissioners to delay penalty decisions until after the election.
A committee under Lisa Scott’s name was fined $250,000. A $130,000 fine went to Horseracing Jobs Fairness, the campaign group run by Lisa Scott and Timberlake. Two other committees representing companies controlled by Lisa Scott were fined $100,000 and $20,000, respectively.
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Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect fine amount for Horseracing Jobs Fairness. It was a typographical error.