The Maine State Police are investigating whether a Maine woman broke the law in a recent essay contest to give away her 210-year-old inn, Sergeant Michael Johnston of the State Police’s special investigations unit said.
The Center Lovell Inn and Restaurant, with spectacular views of the White Mountains, was awarded June 6 to a US Virgin Islands couple who ran a Caribbean-style restaurant on St. John. Janice Sage, the Maine innkeeper who held the essay contest, said Prince and Rose Adams were chosen from thousands of entrants who each submitted a 200-word essay and $125 entry fee.
Now, dozens of unsuccessful contestants are crying foul about what they argue, among other concerns, was deceptive advertising. The group has organized as the Center Lovell Contest Fair Practices Commission and complained that Sage incorrectly stated that no advantage would be granted to restaurant or inn owners.
“One of the many allegations against Janice Sage and the contest she sponsored is that the advertising of the contest . . . was illegally deceptive and violated consumer-rights regulations, intentionally coercing thousands of people to enter a contest that they never had an actual chance of winning,” said Kelley Prass Collins, who founded the group.
“In short, Janice Sage was advertising a contest for ‘dreamers’ who would never have the chance to own an inn and restaurant, and then handed the prize to just such a business owner.”
Neither Sage nor the Adamses could be reached for comment Monday.
Maine State Police said their investigation is narrowly tailored to determine whether the contest violated state law on games of skill. Under the law, which is an older statute primarily written to cover carnival games, operators of such games are prohibited from partially or completely controlling the outcome.
Entrants into the Center Lovell Inn contest had been told the winner would be chosen by an independent, local panel of judges.
“We have received some complaints, so we are being responsive to that and are looking into it to determine if any violations of the [state] law occurred,” Johnston said. “We’re not there to determine if other federal laws or rules may have been violated, such as through the Federal Trade Commission, or whether any potential civil liability may exist.”
Sage said she received fewer than the 7,500 entries she had sought. But at $125 per essay, Sage said, she secured enough money for retirement after running the inn for 22 years.
Sage won the inn in much the same way. After managing a busy Maryland restaurant for years, Sage said, she wanted a change and submitted the winning essay to acquire the sprawling inn and restaurant in a previous contest.
Johnston said the investigation is expected to be completed within a week.
“The contestants may want to consult a qualified private attorney to determine if there are any other options,” Johnston said.
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie @globe.com.