FBI Busts Portland Gambling Kingpin

The Donald Trump of Portland Goes Down

The dump at 777 Forest Ave. owned by Steve Mardigan and apparently vacant for the past seven years. photos/The Fuge

Steve Mardigan is the Donald Trump of Portland, Maine.

Raised in wealth and comfort in Cape Elizabeth, Mardigan followed in the footsteps of his father, Ed Mardigan, and got into the real-estate business in the mid-1990s. As his fortune and reputation grew, Steve adopted the persona of a wise guy, a “cocaine cowboy” in flashy clothes, as one local bar owner described him. A court document from 1997 notes his arrest for “operating a red Jaguar automobile while under the influence of an intoxicant.”

Mardigan was brash, boorish, supremely conceited; a third-generation Armenian-American, he used his hands to emphasize points as he spoke. In 2000, he bought a gorgeous half-million-dollar house on Baxter Boulevard, overlooking Back Cove, where he still resides. He then began buying properties on Forest Avenue with the strategy of a Monopoly player, acquiring over a dozen commercial buildings between Woodfords Corner and Morrill’s Corner. He kept a Jay Leno-like collection of luxury sports cars in the basement of a bank building he owns at 867 Forest Ave. More recently, Mardigan, who’s in his early 60s, applied the Monopoly strategy in Cape, buying three stunning houses on Tides Edge Road, two of them right on the water, all three fully furnished and, apparently, uninhabited.

One of Steve Mardigan’s properties on Tides Edge Road.

I say Mardigan was brash, because these days he’s a shadow of his former self. Once moderately heavyset, he looks like he’s lost at least 30 pounds in the past three months. His bravado has evaporated; he speaks softly and sadly, say tenants accustomed to seeing him every month on his rent-collection rounds.

The exact reason for this is a mystery hidden inside a sealed case file at the U.S. District Courthouse in Portland. But a public document filed with the Cumberland County Registry of Deeds sheds some light on the matter. Dated April 7, 2017, and signed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald E. Clark, it gives notice that the federal government is preparing to seize, by civil forfeiture, pretty much every property Mardigan owns: the house by Back Cove, the homes in Cape, everything on Forest Ave. and a smattering of properties elsewhere in Portland, Westbrook and Gorham.

Using property-tax valuations — which are lower than what the buildings would sell for today on the Portland area’s red-hot real-estate market — back-of-the-napkin math puts the total value of his properties around $14.6 million. Add in the cars, the cash Mardigan and his longtime girlfriend, Patricia Nixon, had stashed away, and the actual market value of his real estate, and the total take for Uncle Sam could conceivably top $20 million. The FBI’s official list of cash and property recently seized by forfeiture includes nearly $750,000 taken from Mardigan and Nixon on April 7. Over $104,000 was seized from a Bank of America account Mardigan had under the business name Avenue Auto Co.; exactly half a million bucks was taken from a “safety deposit box” belonging to Nixon; and another $142,974 was seized from the couple’s home, itemized by the FBI as follows: “$17,974 found on desktop, $25,000 found in plastic file cabinet in white box and $100,000 found in plastic file cabinet next to desk.” The FBI also seized numerous watches from Mardigan and Nixon valued, in total, at $19,300. The latest list does not include any vehicles.    

Two questions immediately follow: What did Mardigan do to face such a stupendous federal forfeiture action, and why the hell is he still driving around town like a free man, collecting checks from tenants as usual?

In this special edition of That’s My Dump!, the first of what we anticipate will be a series of investigative reports on Mardigan’s business and financial dealings, we’ll begin to answer those questions and to shine some light into the shallow underworld of Portland’s wannabe high-rollers, a realm Mardigan has inhabited for decades.

The second floor of this building, which was formerly the site of the bar C.J. Thirsty’s, is said to have been one of Mardigan’s gambling dens.

Unclean Money

The civil-forfeiture complaint on file with the County makes reference to two subsections of section 981 of the U.S. criminal code. The first addresses three types of crime: “laundering of monetary instruments,” “engaging in monetary transactions in property derived from specific unlawful activity” and the “prohibition of unlicensed money transmitting business.” The crimes carry maximum sentences of 20, 10 and 5 years, respectively. It’s not possible at present to determine which of the three crimes, or combination thereof, may eventually apply to this case, but there’s enough potential jail time here to give Mardigan what would effectively be a life sentence.

The second subsection includes over 30 specific crimes, most of which seem unlikely to apply to this matter, including smuggling and counterfeiting. But there’s a biggie that’s more commonly enforced: bank fraud, which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years.

Ed Mardigan, who died in 2013, was a successful businessman, but he was no Fred Trump. He owned and operated Hillside Red & White Market in South Portland, and then ran Amergian Brothers Market, a corner store in a particularly blighted area of Portland’s Bayside neighborhood. He subsequently acquired several modestly sized apartment buildings nearby on Chestnut Street. The many millions of dollars his namesake Stephen Edward Mardigan accrued in order to purchase all those properties appear not to have been inherited wealth, though Ed’s success seems to have given his son a leg up in the world.

The businesses Steve Mardigan, a college drop-out, is known to have operated don’t account for his fortune, either. He ran Matt’s Auto Prep, a detailing business on Forest Ave., and later owned a small car dealership, called Car Mart, also on Forest, according to sources who knew him back in his younger days. Both business have long since closed. Mardigan’s longtime girlfriend, Patricia Nixon, the daughter of a cop, is said to have had a successful career in the telecom and airline industries — but again, not at the level of compensation that would turn one into a tycoon.

The real source of Mardigan’s fortune is, in all likelihood, illegal gambling. I spoke with about two dozen of Mardigan’s personal and business associates this spring, and nearly all of them remarked that Mardigan has been a bookie for many years, decades even. As one source put it, it’s long been an “open secret” among a certain class of old-school Portlanders with a taste for the seedier fruits of life that Mardigan is a bookmaker. Bookies charge fees to arrange bets for others and typically lend money to bettors, as well. A bookie with the financial resources to pay out winnings from his own pot could also collect and keep all the money bet by the losers. Given the value of his known assets, Mardigan may have been in such a position.

Another “open secret” is that Mardigan has hosted, and effectively operated, secret card games for local gamblers at properties he’s owned in town. These were not penny-ante games; thousands of dollars were typically won and lost at the tables, according to informed sources.

One spot identified by multiple sources is the second floor of the two-story building at 726 Forest Ave. The first floor was formerly the home of the sports bar C.J. Thirsty’s and is currently occupied by Sun Tan City (the operators of which are not implicated in any wrongdoing; they’re just renting the space). If there has ever been a legitimate business operating out of the second-floor office space in the 23 years that Mardigan has owned the property, there’s no indication of it that I can find (a Google search for the address yields just eight results). Neither is there any indication that this otherwise attractive office space is or has recently been for rent.

The vacant building at 745 Forest Ave., site of an arson seven years ago.

Forest Avenue Blues

To observers who know a thing or two about Portland real estate, the large number of properties Mardigan owns that have sat vacant and in varying states of disrepair year after year are a strong hint that something untoward is afoot. Mardigan’s commercial real-estate broker is Jay Wise, who owns WRE Commercial Brokers, based in Windham. Drive along Forest Ave. this month and count all the black-and-yellow WRE signs you spot between Woodfords and Morrill’s Corner. Those are all Mardigan properties. For those with eyes to see, those black-and-yellow signs are red flags.

Mardigan’s phone is no longer in service. Wise did not respond to a call requesting comment. Mardigan’s real-estate attorney, Jim Hopkinson of the Portland firm Hopkinson & Abbondanza, also failed to respond, though his assistant initially indicated he would be willing to comment for this story and said she would arrange a time for us to speak before deadline.

In fairness to Hopkinson, he’s hardly the only associate of Mardigan’s who’s decided it’s best to keep his mouth shut. None of Mardigan’s friends, family members, or past or current business associates (with the exception of one tenant) contacted for this story was willing to speak on the record. Most expressed concern that doing so would expose them to harmful personal or financial consequences.

Here’s an overview of some of the more notable Mardigan properties in Portland:

745 Forest Ave. This attractive brick-and-glass structure and the green building adjacent to it are on a parcel purchased in 1993 that’s said to have been the location of Car Mart back in the day. Associates report having seen Mardigan at the property on a fairly regular basis in recent years, tending to one or another of his collectible cars. A sign on the green building says “Antique Auto Co.,” but there’s no indication that Mardigan has been operating either building as a business. A peek inside the window of the green building reveals an office, apparently used by Mardigan, with yellowed newspapers on a desk. Tacked to a bulletin board behind the desk is an illustration depicting Donald Trump sexually assaulting Hillary Clinton by grabbing her crotch. In 2010, a former Westbrook firefighter named Philip Caron was sentenced to 24 years in prison for arson, burglary and violating parole, according to the Portland Press Herald, after he broke into the vacant brick building and set it on fire, destroying it. The fully rebuilt, and totally empty, brick building is listed for lease by WRE for $20/sq. foot.

777 Forest Ave. This is the dumpy building pictured on the cover of this month’s issue. Mardigan bought it for $190,000 in 2010, according to city records. According to one business owner in the neighborhood, it has not had a tenant since then. Neither is it listed for lease.

803 Forest Ave. This large yellow building was best known in years past as the location of Seng Chai Thai restaurant, which closed several years ago. The southern half of the building is occupied by another ethnic business, Haknuman Meanchey, an Asian market. There’s a pattern here. Of those Mardigan properties that currently have tenants, about half of them are businesses owned by immigrants, including Crown Fried Chicken (408 Forest Ave.), Makkah Halal Market (34 Vannah Ave., just off Forest), and Mekong Asian Bistro (865 Forest Ave.). The northern half of this structure, with its badly peeling paint and blacked-out windows, is a marijuana-growing facility — a fact obvious by smell, if not sight, to anyone who walks by. It’s safe to assume that the owners of this grow op are not looking forward to the day their de facto landlord is Attorney General Jeff Sessions. 

865 Forest Ave. Mekong owner Tony Nguyen was the only tenant I reached out to who was willing to comment about Mardigan on the record. He said he’s had a generally positive experience renting from Mardigan and appreciates the improvements his landlord has made to the building, including the removal of an ugly green awning. The much larger space behind Mekong was the location of the legendary music club Raoul’s Roadside Attraction in the 1980s and early ’90s, well before Mardigan owned the property. It’s since been a Mexican restaurant, a music club and eatery called Venue American Grill (whose owners, Kevin and Gar Roper, got into a nasty legal dispute with Mardigan before they closed its doors), and yet another Mexican restaurant which closed about six months ago. A sign outside claims the space is for lease, but it does not appear on WRE’s website.

867 Forest Ave. This is the former Bangor Savings Bank location with a subterranean garage that Mardigan has used to store his cars. It’s listed for lease for $32.50/sq. foot.  

970 Forest Ave. This vacant office building was formerly the Portland location of Planned Parenthood. It’s listed for lease for just $10/sq. ft.

1080 Forest Ave. This is a Starbucks, the only chain restaurant occupying space in Mardigan’s real-estate portfolio.

When or if the federal government follows through and takes possession of Mardigan’s properties, it’s expected that the buildings will be auctioned off individually to new buyers. That process could take a year or more to complete, which leaves current tenants in limbo, uncertain who will own the building where they make their livelihood. Neither Mardigan nor Wise nor Hopkinson had informed the tenants I spoke with of the fact their buildings are the subject of a pending forfeiture. It’s not clear whether any prospective tenants of vacant Mardigan buildings are aware of the situation, either, though Wise would presumably be obligated to disclose that fact at some point in the lease-negotiation process.

One current tenant I spoke with said Mardigan is generally unresponsive when problems with his building arise, and tries to get tenants to pay for any repairs or unforeseen expenses related to the premises. Another tenant echoed that opinion, and said a city official said Mardigan has a notoriously bad reputation for sticking tenants with bills for the upkeep of his properties.

Interestingly, two different prospective tenants of two different Mardigan properties had nearly identical impressions when they tried to rent commercial space from him in recent years. They walked away baffled by Mardigan’s apparent unwillingness to lease vacant buildings to them, despite their demonstration that they had the financial resources necessary to be successful.

“We went through some really shady shit with him,” one highly respected local businessperson said. After some initial progress, the negotiation process inexplicably “went backwards” said this source. “It was almost like he didn’t want us in there.”

There’s more evidence of Mardigan’s Trumpian character. “He bullies you,” a tenant said, and even has the nerve to cry poor, nickel and diming working people while living a life of obscene opulence. One wonders whether even Trump would have the audacity to buy three beautiful homes by the ocean, for a total of $3.3 million, and leave them uninhabited, as Mardigan seems to have done with his places in Cape. He and Nixon have no children and there’s no indication online that Mardigan is renting the ocean-side homes to travelers. There are court documents online detailing legal spats between Mardigan and nearby property owners over easements, beach access, and views.

One of the apartment buildings on Chestnut Street that houses homeless families.

When Ed Mardigan died in 2013, his assets, including his properties in Bayside, were bequeathed to his three children: Stephen and his two younger sisters — Julie Mardigan, who lives in South Portland, and Leslie Greco-Poulin, a residential broker with Coldwell Banker, who also resides in SoPo. Property records indicate that Greco-Poulin granted the three apartment buildings and a parking lot to her brother in April of last year. City records list the transfer as a sale for $1.8 million. The apartments on Chestnut Street are rented by the City of Portland as shelter for homeless families. The fate of these crucial buildings is now also in doubt.

“Why are you doing a story on my brother?” Greco-Poulin asked when reached by phone late last month. “Of course I have nothing to say about any of this. I don’t think it’s really right what you’re doing, but I can’t discuss it.”

Brick Shit

Federal agents have had their eye on Mardigan for at least a couple years. A source told The Bollard the Feds’ interest was piqued when Mardigan made bank deposits in cash in excess of $10,000. Banks are required to file reports on cash deposits of that size in a federal database, in accordance with the Bank Secrecy Act of 1970.

Multiple sources said Mardigan’s Back Cove home was raided by a sizeable team of agents last April. The Bollard has now confirmed that the raid took place on the morning of Friday, April 7. An eyewitness said FBI agents searched the home for at least six hours and left with boxes and bags of evidence and (we now know) cash. The witness also said that in addition to any vehicles used by federal law enforcement, there were several Portland Police Department vehicles on the scene, and at least four vehicles with Massachusetts license plates. That last detail is extremely troubling, as it implies Mardigan was involved with individuals in Massachusetts who may be engaged in organized crime. (The office of Portland Police Chief Mike Sauschuck declined to comment on the Mardigan case late last month, citing the fact it is sealed by federal authorities. Portland police also declined to provide any information to concerned neighbors who called about the raid.)        

The scope of the case is staggering. In order to seize property by forfeiture in Maine, the government must prove by a preponderance of evidence that the property is linked to a crime. In its April 7 filing, the government seems to be asserting that every property Mardigan owns is tied to illegal activity.

At $15 million, this civil forfeiture would be the largest such action ever undertaken in Maine — most likely by several factors. By way of comparison, consider that according to data collected by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian legal organization, the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency seizes about $250,000 in cash, on average, each year, and Maine law-enforcement agencies receive, on average, just over $400,000 every year for assets seized as a result of their work with the Department of Justice.

Yet the case is sealed, there’s been not a peep about it from the Feds, and Mardigan is driving around collecting checks from tenants like it’s business as usual. What gives?

One possible explanation is that authorities are still working the case, attempting to ensnare associates of Mardigan who may be unaware he’s being busted. But that approach seems incredibly naïve, given that word of Mardigan’s troubles spread quickly through the Portland gambling underworld, as anyone familiar with it would expect.

There’s also the fact that in civil forfeiture cases the “defendant” is technically the property itself, not its owner, who may or may not be indicted before or after the forfeiture is initiated.

At this point, let’s just say that any cronies Mardigan may have done illicit business with in the past must be shitting bricks right now. The local rumor mill is churning out names of players who may already be ensnared in the case.

Stay tuned.