Down East 2013 ©
If an audacious referendum passes this month, a Nevada casino executive, Dean Harrold, might soon be one of the most powerful people in Maine. That’s not what Rumford attorney Seth Carey wanted. It was supposed to be him.
When the thirty-three-year-old Carey first conceived of building a casino in Oxford County and began the process of gathering signatures to put the proposal on the statewide ballot, he saw himself in the role of potential kingpin. And as such Carey wrote his referendum granting himself and the company he founded, Evergreen Mountain Enterprises, incredible powers — a ten-year monopoly on casino operations in the state, carte blanche on where it is built, and permanent voting seats on the boards of some of the most important agencies in Maine, including the Finance Authority of Maine, the University of Maine System, and the Land for Maine’s Future program. Carey’s law asks voters to keep the 1,500 slot machine limit for track-related racinos while giving Evergreen an unlimited number of slots, plus table games such as blackjack and roulette. It would drop the legal gambling age to nineteen. And it would allow the casino to extend house credit to gamblers but not let them use their credit or debit cards.
Carey’s plan was to make himself one of Maine’s wealthiest and most powerful men, but things did not go as planned. Along the way he ran into complaints of ethical and legal malfeasance, accusations of dishonesty from his own spokesperson, and widespread charges of business naiveté. His campaign stumbled badly, and in mid-September he sold Evergreen Mountain Enterprises to the Olympia Group, a Las Vegas-based gaming and resort developer. As a result, Seth Carey’s legacy will undoubtedly be different from the one he intended. And for Mainers, who might soon find unknown, out-of-state casino executives making decisions about their healthcare and universities, it might well be an enduring and troublesome legacy indeed.
To understand how Maine ended up with such a brash and sweeping proposal on the November ballot, you need to know something about the man who created it. And finding the real Seth Carey has not been easy to do. Extensive media interviews in the past two years have been nonexistent — he failed to respond to half a dozen telephone and e-mail requests for an interview for this article — and his public statements are limited to platitudes and generalities. His high-profile spokesperson, former gubernatorial candidate Pat LaMarche, joined the campaign in April and quit in August, complaining that staying would have forced her to lie to the people of Maine. She returned in September when the sale to Olympia Group was announced.
Despite his leading role, Carey made no effort to contact the Oxford County commissioners to explain his plans. He placed no advertisements in newspapers or television. His campaign plans focused on touring Maine county fairs handing out bumper stickers from an old U-Haul truck modified to burn biodiesel. It all sounded rather quixotic.
Certainly Carey started out seriously enough. Last year he organized a statewide petition campaign that collected nearly 56,000 signatures, more than enough to force a referendum on the question. In testimony before the legislature’s Legal and Veteran’s Affairs Committee, he argued that his casino would bring new jobs and vitality to economically depressed western Maine and specifically to his hometown of Rumford. He promised an eco-friendly, super-green, four-season resort with art galleries devoted to Maine artists, a spa, a craft brewery, ATV trails, and helicopter tours. A video of his testimony showed a tall, dark-haired man who spoke with passion about the casino’s impact.
Income from the casino would benefit a grab bag of interests, ranging from biofuels research and creative economy grants to student loan reimbursements and the Land for Maine’s Future. Property tax relief, the Dirigo healthcare program, public access television, and the east-west highway proposal would share in the largesse. The entire list runs to twenty-two paragraphs in the bill.
One of the conditions, however, is that the president of Evergreen Mountain Enterprises must be made a voting member of the board of every organization that receives a share of the casino’s income. Originally that person would have been Carey. But since the sale to Olympia, that provision would put Nevada resident Harrold on the governing bodies of agencies and organizations all over Maine, from the Maine Community College System board of trustees to Dirigo Health to environmental organizations involved in cleaning up the Androscoggin River.
Those who know Carey (who maintains a minority interest in the company) describe an idealistic but naïve man who genuinely wants to help Rumford and western Maine. “He’s a young many trying very hard to make a difference,” says J. Arthur Boivin, chairman of the Rumford Board of Selectmen. “It’s a little difficult for him to do that because of his lack of experience.”
“He legitimately wants to help his community,” says Tony Ronzio, editorial page editor for the Lewiston Sun-Journal, who knows Carey and has followed the casino campaign from the beginning. “There is no doubt in my mind that this is not just some get-rich-quick scheme.”
Carey is a member of a well-known Rumford family. His father, Thomas Carey, is a respected attorney who is active in local politics and currently serves as the town’s legal counsel besides operating his own law firm. Seth Carey earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Clemson University and a master’s degree in sports management from Florida State. He graduated from the University of Vermont Law School in 2001 and was admitted to the Maine Bar five years later after working as a paralegal in his father’s firm.
Politics in Rumford has been a full-contact sport in recent years, with various factions fighting over everything from sharing a town manager with neighboring Mexico to whether two trees in front of the town offices should be cut down. At one point earlier this year two selectmen tried to vote two other selectmen off the board. Both Seth and Thomas Carey are deeply embedded in the community’s rough-and-tumble political life.
“Seth is a product of that environment up there,” observes Ronzio. “It’s divisive, confrontational, and contentious, and that background hasn’t served him well in dealing with the rest of Maine.”
Nor has it helped him as an attorney. Three local lawyers and two judges filed complaints with the Board of Overseers of the Bar against Carey last year, charging him with unethical conduct and questioning his competency. Carey was accused of contacting the client of another attorney as well as unfairly criticizing an attorney on a local Web site. Two judges also questioned his ability to adequately represent clients.
At a hearing in May, he admitted that he was at times “brash, intemperate, and excessive,” according to published reports. The three-member Grievance Commission later found that three of the five complaints were proven and ordered disciplinary action be taken. Carey could face punishments ranging from a public reprimand to disbarment.
As Carey’s problems grew earlier this year, his house of cards began to totter. Last spring Carey, never a high profile spokesman, virtually disappeared from public view after news reports surfaced of his legal problems. He resigned as president of Evergreen Mountain, and LaMarche was quoted as saying new leadership would be brought in. Instead, the effort drifted, and in July Carey announced he was returning to lead the campaign. His presence didn’t improve the flow the information.
“I’ve never seen anyone promote something like this and offer so little information,” observes Steve Merrill, an Oxford County commissioner. “We don’t where or who or what potential infrastructure needs will be required.” LaMarche has since announced that Olympia Group will choose the casino’s location before the referendum.
Carey and, during her earlier tenure as spokesperson, LaMarche always refused to clarify who would partner with Carey to build the casino. “Seth [had] claimed they’re not out-of-state interests, that they’re Maine people,” says Bruce Farrin, editor of the weekly Rumford Falls Times.
That claim died September 16, when Olympia Group announced it had acquired Evergreen Mountain Enterprises and would carry on the campaign for Carey’s casino. Harrold, vice chairman of Olympia’s gaming division, was named the new president. Harrold has extensive experience in the Las Vegas gaming industry, including a stint as president and chief operating officer of both Caesars Palace and the Las Vegas Hilton.
“It’s the old bait and switch,” declares Dennis Bailey, executive director of Casinos No! and principal of Savvy Inc., one of Maine’s premier public relations firms. “Carey got people to sign his petition saying that this was being done by Maine people for the benefit of Maine people. Now it’s being done by Las Vegas people for the benefit of Las Vegas people. Now all that money is going to Las Vegas, not staying in Maine.”
Bailey, who has led the opposition to every casino proposal to surface in Maine in recent years, says the arrival of Olympia Group is no surprise. “Seth needed somebody,” he explains. “I think this guy has been in the wings for months.”
Before the sale, early polls showed the casino question losing by a large margin. “This doesn’t change our strategy,” Bailey adds. “It’s still the same old bill with the same old problems.” The casino’s ability to extend credit to customers especially troubles him. “You’re going to have a lot of people walking out of that casino owing money” to the casino’s owners, he predicts.
Olympia has distanced itself from some of the bill’s provisions, such as the lowered age limit and board representation, “but that’s the bill we’re voting on,” Bailey says. “They say they’ll fix it in the legislature, but who’s to say what the legislature will do? And what else would they fix — the location?”
Bob Welch, executive director of the Maine Gambling Control Board, says if the referendum succeeds the legislature will have to step in to lift the age limit. “There is alcohol on the floor of the gaming area all the time,” he notes. “Kids and alcohol are not a good mix.”
He also questions allowing the casino to make loans to gamblers and provisions calling for remotely shutting down table games from the control board’s central monitoring facility. “You can’t electronically monitor a blackjack table and shut it down remotely like we can a slot machine,” he explains.
Welch recalls listening to a radio interview with LaMarche where some of those issues were raised. “Her comment was, ‘We’ll let the legislature fix it,’ ” Welch says. “That’s not a good answer.”
On November 4, Mainers will have to decide if that’s good enough.