Maine Ethics Committee votes to pursue power line opponents’ records
Maine’s campaign finance watchdog voted unanimously on Friday to continue efforts to determine whether a limited liability company working to block a controversial transmission line project should have registered in as a political action committee or a voting committee.
In a 5-0 vote, the Committee on Government Ethics and Election Practices also agreed to request a subpoena for financial information from an unidentified Virginia political consultant who worked with the LLC, Stop the Corridor, to shut down the New England Clean Energy Connect project. .
The project will go to a statewide vote in November.
After a videoconference of nearly 3 hours closed to the public, the committee voted to reject a request to cancel its administrative assignment for financial files. The commission is trying to determine the role that Stop the Corridor and the consultant play in the ongoing political battle over the 145-mile transmission line project being built by Central Maine Power and Hydro-Quebec in western Maine.
The $ 1 billion project would serve as a conduit, bringing up to 1,200 megawatts of Canadian hydroelectricity to Massachusetts.
The commission voted to postpone until next Friday a decision on whether or not to pursue a separate subpoena of the Stop the Corridor cases, as commission staff continue negotiations with a lawyer representing the LLC on what it should be. duty to disclose.
But the commission also appears to be preparing for a legal battle with the anonymous consultant, whose identity is protected by the commission under state laws that protect sensitive financial and political information.
During the brief public part of the committee’s meeting on Friday, executive director Jonathan Wayne suggested that the committee give the parties two weeks to comply with the request for information, but also said he wouldn’t not expecting it.
“If I thought there was a chance that the client would comply with the subpoena, I would suggest a longer time frame, but it looks to me like we’re headed to court,” Wayne said.
Commission staff recommended that it investigate following a complaint filed in January 2020 by Clean Energy Matters, a political action committee funded by supporters of the project, mainly CMP and its parent company Avangrid, a subsidiary. from the Spanish electricity giant Iberdrola. This complaint, filed by Newell Auger, an attorney for Clean Energy Matters, notes that Stop the Corridor worked in concert with No CMP Corridor, which is a registered PAC.
But Stop the Corridor lawyers argued that their client is not a PAC, as they were not trained for the primary purpose of supporting or defeating a voting issue and only provided donations in nature at No CMP Corridor.
A letter to the commission from Stop the Corridor attorney Kate Knox says the LLC was formed in April 2018 out of fears the corridor would “cause catastrophic environmental and economic damage” in the state of Maine. Knox notes that the main goal of Stop the Corridor, like that of other organizations working to derail the transmission line project, is to engage in the authorization process for the corridor at different levels of local government, state and federal.
But in his letter to the commission, Auger claims that Stop the Corridor engaged in its own political activity, purchasing more than $ 1.4 million in TV advertising in 2020 alone. It also contributed $ 50,000 of in-kind donations including postage, printing costs, office supplies and website development to No CMP Corridor, and donated $ 40,000 of ‘staff time to recruit volunteers “.
“This disturbingly matches the lack of transparency of undeclared black money that has already been spent by non-state fossil fuel interests opposed to the clean energy transmission line,” Auger writes.
Combined, political spending on opposite sides of the power line debate has shattered all state records for a campaign of election issues. According to campaign fundraising records, Clean Energy Matters has already spent $ 19.5 million to boost public support for the corridor expansion, which aims to bring electricity from Quebec to Massachusetts via Maine. . No CMP Corridor has spent $ 165,000 to defeat the Corridor or counter messages from the CMP and its partners, according to campaign fundraising records.
In November, voters across the state will be asked whether the legislature should be required to approve any power transmission project over 50 miles in length. But this question may well be moot as construction of the corridor is already well advanced and much of the line could be completed before a new law can be passed.
In 2019, Governor Janet Mills threw his support behind the project after negotiating a state benefit package, worth approximately $ 258 million over 40 years, designed to lower electricity bills, advance clean energy efforts and fund other public projects.
Opponents had previously collected more than 63,000 signatures for a “popular veto” referendum on the corridor of power, but the The Maine Supreme Court ruled the issue unconstitutionall because the approval of the expansion was made by the Public Services Commission. The court ruled that a popular veto referendum can only be used to overturn legislative actions, not regulatory decisions by state agencies.
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