(The Center Square) – A Maine ethics panel has rejected a request by backers of the $1 billion hydropower transmission corridor to investigate fundraising activity by opponents of the project.
On Friday, the Maine Ethics Commission voted 4-1 to reject a complaint by the group Clean Energy Matters that accused the founder of Say No to NECEC of not registering as a political action committee after it received a sizable donation from another opposition group.
Lawyers for Clean Energy Matters argued in the complaint that the founder of the group, Sandi Howard, should be required to register it as a political action committee because it accepted a $140,000 donation from the No CMP Corridor, a PAC she also founded. The group also alleged that the PAC was concealing donations it has received from the fossil fuel industry.
"This group has now received a significant infusion of cash less than 40 days before the election – traceable directly to the fossil fuel companies bankrolling the leading opposition PAC – but continues to hide behind the façade of a 'grassroots' organization uninvolved in the election," attorney Newell Augur wrote in the complaint.
A lawyer representing Say No to NECEC argued that the group's efforts are educational, not political, and it shouldn't be required to register as a political action committee.
The ethics commission, the state's campaign finance watchdog, sided with the CMP opponents, saying Clean Energy Matters had provided no evidence that Say No to NECEC had spent the money it received to sway voters on the referendum. As such, it shouldn't be required to register as a PAC, a majority of the board concluded.
"In my opinion, I do not see that payments by No CMP Corridor for campaign signs, entrance fees, and volunteer coordination should be viewed as a contribution to Say No to NECEC," Jonathan Wayne, the ethics commission chairman, wrote in a memo to panel members. "Those are not gifts of money or things of value to Say No to NECEC."
Howard praised the ruling, accusing backers of the project of trying to intimidate opponents with "bogus complaints."
"It's really sad that the utility has focused so many resources on efforts to intimidate myself and other volunteers for daring to stand up for what we believe is right for the state of Maine," she said in a statement. "My message to CMP is simple – we won't be intimidated into submission, and we won't back down until the destructive CMP Corridor is stopped."
The ethics commissions' rejection of the complaint comes as spending on the ballot question has reached record levels ahead of the Nov. 2 elections.
Combined, spending from supporters and opponents of the controversial hydropower corridor project has exceeded $60 million since 2019, according to campaign finance filings.
The referendum will ask Maine voters if they want to ban "high-impact electric transmission lines in the Upper Kennebec Region" and "require the Legislature to vote on other such projects in Maine retroactive to 2014, with a two-thirds vote required if a project uses public lands?"
Earlier this year, Gov. Janet Mills vetoed a bill that would have banned foreign governments and entities from contributing to ballot questions in the state.
The proposal, approved by the state Legislature in the previous session, was aimed at choking off a source of funding for opponents of the ballot question.
The New England Clean Energy Connect project calls for providing up to 1,200 megawatts of Canadian hydropower to the region. Much of the power will be diverted to Massachusetts to meet its renewable energy requirements.
The project, which got underway earlier this year, has received permits and other approvals from the state and federal government. A court ruling in August called into question the legality of a lease for a roughly one-mile section of state land where the project is being constructed.
Backers of the project say it will create jobs, help green the regional power grid and reduce greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are contributing to climate change.
Opponents say the project would carve through scenic swathes of forest in the North Maine Woods and lead to a loss of jobs and recreational tourism.
Both sides have waged a costly and bitter public relations war for several years over the details of the project, and whether it will negatively impact the state and its ratepayers.