LEWISTON – If you're a registered voter in Maine, you've got something that Stavros Mendros wants: your signature.
In the last two years Mendros, a Lewiston City Councilor and former state lawmaker, has created a business of gathering signatures from Maine voters for so-called citizen-sponsored ballot initiatives.
Mendros and his company, Olympic Consulting, have been paid more than $132,000 for his work since 2005. In 2006 alone he earned $74,776 from the Washington County Tribal Track Coalition, a political action committee funded largely with money from the Passamaquoddy Joint Tribal Council, organizing the gathering of signatures for a question asking voters to approve a horse-racing track and casino for the nation. That question goes to voters this fall.
Mendros said most of the money from the tribal PAC was paid out to those working to actually collect the signatures. He said he made only $3,000 working on that campaign. "I think in the end on that I was making something like a quarter a signature," he said.
This year his company has been paid $16,000 from a Rumford-based PAC aimed at bringing a privately owned casino to Oxford County.
Mendros is in the business of gathering signatures and notarizing their authenticity but, in July, he was charged by the Maine Attorney General's Office for misuse of his notary commission during the signature drive for the Washington County casino. Mendros pleaded not guilty last week.
The state's criminal complaint against Mendros charges him with four counts of not being in the presence of those he administered oaths to. All four counts charge Mendros, "did willfully and falsely acknowledge the oath of a circulator..." according to the complaint on file at the 8th District Court. The charge carries a maximum punishment of 60 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
In all, 994 signatures gathered as part of the Washington County casino drive in Lewiston, Waterboro, Biddeford and Bangor were ruled invalid by the Bureau of Corporations, Elections & Commissions.
'I'll sign anything'
In 2005, and only months before he went to work on the ballot initiative for the Washington County casino, Mendros was paid $11,768 to provide signature gatherers for another initiative aimed at banning slot machines in Maine.
The Maine Grassroots Coalition, run by Susan and Paul Madore of Lewiston and bankrolled largely with money from the Christian Civic League of Maine, paid Mendros to gather signatures for the No Slots For Maine campaign, state records show.
Mendros has been paid by three of the five signature drives currently authorized by the state's Bureau of Corporations, Elections & Commissions.
"I've never said no to a petition, when I ran for U.S. Congress I signed my opponents' petitions, I even notarized some for them, so I'll sign anything," Mendros said. "Even something I vehemently disagree with I would sign because we shouldn't be afraid of the voters, we should let them decide."
That he's been paid to work both sides of the casino issue doesn't bother him either, he said.
"I have no problem with casinos but, personally, I have no interest in them," he said. "I don't go to them. I have no interest in gambling. Ultimately, if we can get something on the ballot and let the voters have the final say that's the best way to do it."
Take it to voters
Legislative inaction on the issue has pushed the casino issue to the ballot box, he said.
"The Legislature isn't bending at all," Mendros said. "They are not getting rid of casinos and they are not going to let them expand. So the only way anyone can have their voice heard on either side of that argument is by taking it to the voters... I've got no ax to grind on either side, I've got no financial incentive on either side other than running a business and helping them get on the ballot and helping them get access to the voters of Maine - I'm happy to do it."
State records also show Mendros administers the Open MLS Maine PAC, aimed at creating a statewide public real estate registry via ballot initiative. That PAC has been largely funded, with $82,000 in donations this year alone, from two organizations listing the same San Francisco address.
An increasing presence of professional signature wranglers working Maine ballot questions is a disturbing trend for some, including at least one of Mendros' former clients.
Michael Heath, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, said the league's board wrestles with the moral problem of paying for signatures. He also said had the board known Mendros would work both sides of the casino issue they likely would not have employed him.
"My sense of the board is we would look to work with a group that is in agreement with us morally, especially on an issue like this," Heath said. "The league would favor the volunteer approach but there's been pressure in recent years to get the job done and pay people to gather signatures."
Paying for support
Paying to get a ballot question before voters is, "a bit of a gray area," Heath said. "There is nothing wrong with a person being paid for an honest day's work. But when money becomes part of the equation, doesn't that change the nature of what you are doing? They are not doing it out of the goodness of their heart and because they are passionate about the issue, but because they are getting paid."
Those who were gathering signatures for the Washington County casino were being paid $3 a signature, Mendros said.
Mark Brewer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maine at Orono, said petition drives in Maine and elsewhere usually are bankrolled by special interests.
"The reality is that citizen-generated initiative and referenda, rather than being these outlets for legislation or policy coming up from the grassroots and common people, have really just been another vehicle where organized special interest groups can kind of throw their weight around and exert influence and try to get public policy made," Brewer said.
"I'm not saying that's necessarily wrong, obviously the ability of interest groups to try and put their interests out there and get policy that benefits them, the ability to do that is protected in the Constitution. So I'm not saying it's necessarily a bad thing. I'm just saying that these citizen-generated processes are not what they are cracked up to be," said Brewer.
Mendros' client Dave Barry, the backer of the Open Maine MLS PAC, said he's not concerned with the charges Mendros is facing.
During a phone interview in July, Barry said, in a way, the charges validated the Open Maine MLS PAC because it was not being scrutinized by the Attorney General's Office.
"I see it in some ways as ratification," Barry said. "Is our confidence shaken? Not a bit. Mr. Mendros has dealt with or engaged or been associated with tens of thousands of signatures and circulators and all they can come up with are these four petitions?"
Countering concerns that the charges against Mendros could jeopardize other campaigns he's working on, Barry said the charges show, "a high level of accuracy and veracity."
Barry also said it's preferable to have signature gatherers work on multiple campaigns because it presents the opportunity for them to make more money.
One circulator carrying multiple petitions was preferable for both campaigns and the circulator, Barry said.
"It gives the chance for the gatherer to make more money in one day," Barry said.
He also noted that passing a citizen's referendum in Maine was relatively inexpensive and a cost-effective way to advance a national initiative.
"You essentially get the stature of a state for the price of a city," Barry said. A win in Maine was also politically prestigious on the national stage, Barry said.
"Maine is good for us for several reasons, first because the perception in other parts of the United States is that Maine is a thoughtful place," Barry said. "It's well-educated, it's cosmopolitan... and it's a place we can afford."
Freedom to petition
Seth Carey, the Rumford attorney and backer of the PAC that's working for a private casino in Oxford County, said he was concerned about the charges but also believes in the concept of being innocent until proven guilty.
His campaign, which is largely funded with donations from family and friends, needs to be careful with its spending simply because they don't have a lot of money to spend, Carey said.
"It's really a grassroots effort right now," Carey said. "So of course I am concerned. I'm concerned about every dollar I spend no matter what it is for since it's almost all loaned money I have to pay back."
Ideally signatures would be collected by an all-volunteer campaign, but gathering 55,087 valid signatures needed for a vote is a daunting challenge.
"I used to disagree with paying petition circulators, until I did it myself and observed others. I realized how hard it is to get out there every day, to even find a place to exercise one's freedom to petition," Carey said. "Maine is so rural and spread out there are few town squares or even downtowns anymore. The only place to find people these days is at a shopping center or box store, it seems, and they will not let you petition unless the issue helps them."
The key, petition supporters believe, is that this is democracy at its finest, letting all the voters of Maine decide, rather than the governor or legislators who are beholden to special interests. This issue will be decided by the voters at the ballot box.
"I'm hopefully not giving anyone any allusions that this is not a business that myself and my friends and family are hoping to get accomplished as entrepreneurs," Carey said. On the other hand, the project would be creating needed jobs and bringing money to the region, he said. The proposed legislation states that 40 percent of the profits would go back to the community and the state. Carey also said if he is successful he would use his profits to create other businesses and other jobs.
"I have no problem being proud of the fact that this is a business," Carey said. "But I think it will be a lot more philanthropic than most businesses and revitalize my area of Oxford County and Maine in general. In the end it would be nice to recover the money I invested. If I make a profit, great, but even if I lose everything I tried the hardest I could to help our area."
But casino opponents, including Dennis Bailey, a spokesman for Casinos No!, a PAC formed to fight against new casinos in Maine, said the push for gambling as a solution to economic problems, even if well-intended, is misguided.
"There is no public demand out there saying, 'Damn it, give me a casino,'" Bailey said. "The people funding these petition drives, they are not a bunch of outraged citizens or ordinary people. These are self-interested groups that are funding these things."
Meanwhile, the increasing presence of money, paid signature gatherers and professional campaign organizers, like Mendros, in the process is likely to increase voter apathy.
The more they learn about the process the less likely voters will be to offer up their signatures, Bailey said.
"I don't think it's just (Mendros') situation that should give people pause, but I do believe that anytime you see somebody trying to get your signature on a petition you really need to question who is behind this and what they are really up to," Bailey said. "Because nine times out of ten this is not a citizen-initiated petition in any sense of the word, this is initiated by some deep pockets and special interests."
For his part, Mendros remains unabashed and is even proud of the work he does, he said.
He believes strongly in letting the voter decide. "Ultimately, the more we can get in front of the voter, the more direct democracy we can have the better," he said. "Because that takes all the lobbyists out of the picture. They can't schmooze. There's no back room deals. There's no you-vote-with-me on this issue, I'll-vote-with-you on that issue. There's none of that. It's all decided by the voters based on the information they have. They make the decision."