AUGUSTA — The Maine Ethics Commission voted 2-1 Tuesday to launch an investigation into one of several groups opposing Central Maine Power Co.’s proposal to build a 145-mile transmission line through the mountains of western Maine.

Commission staff will investigate whether Stop the Corridor should have registered as a ballot question committee or a political action committee when it collected funds and made in-kind contributions to a campaign that was gathering signatures for a statewide ballot question to block the corridor.

A complaint by Clean Energy Matters, a CMP-funded political action committee that’s working to support the $1 billion project, prompted the commission’s action Tuesday. The investigation is expected to take at least a month.

Kate Knox, an attorney for Stop the Corridor, argued that her organization’s major purpose was to oppose the corridor but much of that work has been focused in the regulatory environment, trying to block environmental and other permits CMP needs to move the project forward. Stop the Corridor also has been active at the local government level, convincing some 28 towns in Maine to pass moratoriums against constructing the power line in their territory.

While Stop the Corridor did help collect voter signatures for the ballot measure, which could head to voters in November, pending several potential legal challenges, Knox said that work was not the organization’s primary function.

Last week, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap certified that corridor opponents had collected enough valid voter signatures to place a ballot question to voters statewide, a decision likely to face additional legal challenges from CMP’s attorneys.


Knox said Newell Augur, an attorney representing Clean Energy Matters, did not show any evidence that Stop the Corridor had made passing the ballot question its major purpose. But two of the three commissioners decided there was enough evidence for the commission’s staff to at least investigate whether the scope of the work being done by Stop the Corridor would require it to register as a political entity under Maine’s campaign finance laws and disclose its funding sources and how those funds were being spent.

Commissioner Richard Nass, a Republican from Acton, said he believes it is the commission’s role to create transparency in political campaigns, and that voters have a right to know who is bankrolling Stop the Corridor.

Nass said he has not formed a position on the corridor project, but said, “Voters have a right to know where the money came from and how it was spent.”

Both Nass and Commissioner William Lee III, a Democrat from Waterville, voted in favor of the investigation, while Commissioner Meri Lowry, a Portland Democrat, sided with Stop the Corridor, arguing the organization’s purpose was clear in its name and that its activity in support of the petition drive was limited in scope, while the bulk of its work had focused on the permitting process or in stopping the power line with construction moratoriums at the municipal level.

While the public comment periods have ended on a series of permits CMP will need for construction of the corridor – including those from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the state’s Land Use Planning Commission and the federal Army Corps of Engineers – the public comment period remains open on at least one other federal permit, known as a presidential permit, which would allow the power line to cross the U.S. border with Canada. Those permits, if issued, also could face additional appeals and legal challenges under both state and federal law.

If the commission’s investigation determines that Stop the Corridor should have registered as a political action committee or ballot question committee, the organization, currently registered as a limited liability corporation, would have to disclose its donors and could face campaign finance penalties for late disclosures under state campaign finance laws.

In a separate vote, the commission unanimously rejected another request by Augur that its staff investigate another power line foe, the nonprofit Say No to NECEC, for its involvement in, including some $16,000 in donations to, a political action committee called No CMP Corridor. The committee was set up to help advance the ballot question, which if approved by voters could stop construction of the power corridor that would transmit electricity from Quebec to Lewiston, where it would connect to the New England grid and eventually consumers in Massachusetts.

The commission also voted to accept its staff’s recommendation for a $2,500 late filing penalty for another power line opponent, the PAC Mainers for Local Power, which is largely funded by Calpine and Vistra Energy, which use natural gas to generate electricity for the New England grid. The PAC could have faced a penalty as steep as $28,000 based on the amount of donations that were reported late by the PAC. But the commission frequently reduces maximum penalty amounts based on the circumstances, including whether a PAC is a first-time offender and the harm done to the public by the late disclosure.

Jonathan Wayne, the commission’s executive director, said it would take his staff at least a month to investigate the financial role of Stop the Corridor, which did disclose its in-kind contributions to the ballot campaign.

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