Jim LaBrecque is a refrigeration technology expert from Bangor who’s passionate about energy issues. He’s a big advocate of importing hydroelectricity from Canada. Last January, he decided to find out who was funding the opposition to the New England Clean Energy Connect transmission project in a 2020 lawsuit regarding the line’s proposed route over a mile of state-owned timberland in western Maine.

The route issue was settled last year, when the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Central Maine Power had a valid lease over the public land. But some of the same parties are involved in a related legal challenge – now set to go to a jury trial on April 10 – so LaBrecque continued to pursue his inquiries.

He hasn’t made much progress. But LaBrecque sees a link between money spent on the 2021 ballot campaign to kill the NECEC project and the court cases. Amid public interest in whether the power line gets built or not, his quest has highlighted a lack of transparency among project opponents.

“Transparency puts light on the truth,” LaBrecque said.

LaBrecque said he suspects Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources, which has opposed the project since it first came before state utility regulators in 2019, may be contributing to the opposition’s legal expenses.

NextEra owns a Seabrook, New Hampshire, nuclear energy plant, and could lose tens of millions of dollars a year if a new source of lower-cost Canadian hydropower comes into New England. Supporters of the 2021 ballot question spent roughly $24 million and NextEra was the primary donor, pitching in $20 million.


NextEra’s media office didn’t respond last week to a request for an interview.

LaBrecque also questions how two high-profile opponents of the project are paying their legal bills in the court cases – the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the state’s leading environmental group, and Tom Saviello, a former Republican state senator from Wilton who helped lead the ballot question campaign.

New England Clean Energy Connect opponent Tom Saviello speaks during a news conference on the project at the Cumberland County Courthouse in May 2022. Staff photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Both the NRCM and Saviello declined recent interview requests.

Legal challenges to NECEC that have gone on for more than four years are raising questions about how much it cost to oppose and defend the project, and where the money comes from. Unlike political or lobbying campaigns, which have public reporting requirements, law firms and their clients aren’t required to disclose expenditures for legal or regulatory cases.

But after more than three dozen proceedings, which together have generated millions of pages, hundreds of thousands of documents and untold hours of work for legal staffs, you might say the fight over NECEC has become a multimillion-dollar industry.

“I’ve been involved with this case for four years and it’s fascinating,” said Tony Buxton, who chairs the energy and utilities practice group at Portland law firm Preti Flaherty. “But I think the legal fees for this entire project have to be over $60 million.”


Buxton’s firm represents the Industrial Energy Consumer Group as intervenors in the pending NECEC trial. He based his estimate on an observed range of what senior attorneys at top Maine law firms charge – between $200 and $500 an hour – and the time it takes to prepare for each proceeding. Of course, firms can discount their fees for nonprofits or other clients. But without any disclosure, there’s no way to know.

“You could build a significant energy project, just for the legal fees,” Buxton said.

Besides Preti Flaherty, firms involved in the case include Pierce Atwood, which represents plaintiffs NECEC Transmission LLC and Avangrid Inc., and Drummond Woodsum, which represents the key defendants and intervenors, NRCM and Saviello. Other law firms in the case include Eaton Peabody, representing intervenor H.Q. Energy Services (Hydro-Quebec); Verrill Dana, Cianbro Corp.; Roach Ruprecht Sanchez, NextEra Energy Resources; and Petruccelli Martin, Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

The energy companies involved in the fight have deep pockets, as evidenced by their spending on the 2021 ballot question aimed at stopping the project. According to Maine Ethics Commission figures, opponents of the referendum led by political action committees associated with Avangrid and Hydro-Quebec spent roughly $63 million. The companies stand to earn billions of dollars if the line is constructed.

It seems unlikely that the Natural Resources Council and Saviello have the same financial resources as the big companies.

Saviello is a retired paper company manager and now runs a small shop in Farmington. NRCM is a nonprofit that got the bulk of its $3.3 million in 2022 operating revenue from contributions, membership gifts and grants, according to the council’s annual report. Fees for legal services are listed at $24,504 in the group’s latest annual tax filing.


LaBrecque said, “If NRCM is paying the bill (for legal opposition to the project), they should say that. Why aren’t they?”


LaBrecque is no stranger to mixing it up over energy issues.

As an informal energy adviser to former Gov. Paul LePage, LaBrecque was a vocal critic of current state policies that promote solar and wind power over large-scale hydro, which he sees as a better deal for electricity customers. He’s still a familiar face testifying against solar and wind bills before the Maine Legislature, and he uses his regular slot on conservative talk radio station WVOM-FM in Bangor as a platform to amplify his views.

LaBrecque has been accused of being on CMP or Avangrid’s payroll. The truth, he said, is that after driving around Maine last year on his own time, speaking to civic groups about the benefits of the NECEC project, he asked Avangrid to reimburse him for mileage. He said he was paid $2,500.

A cement truck passes the residence of a NECEC corridor opponent while driving north on U.S. Route 201 in Bingham in October 2021. Michael G. Seamans/Staff Photographer

“No one is paying me to say anything,” he said. “I asked them to compensate me, because they were gaining a great benefit at my cost.”


In that vein, LaBrecque said he wants project opponents to be upfront about how they are being funded. That desire for transparency also led LaBrecque to dig into how legal bills were paid for some of the plaintiffs in the 2020 public lands case.

That case, called Russell Black et al. v. Bureau of Public Lands et al., dealt with whether CMP had a valid lease to string the power lines across less than a mile of state-owned timberland near The Forks in western Maine. The plaintiffs included nine former and current legislators, including Saviello, who had dealt with the issue in their committees. Also among the plaintiffs was the NRCM.

An engagement letter to the parties from Drummond Woodsum attorney James Kilbreth, dated June 11, 2020, noted that there would be “no cost to you” for the firm’s representation.

Last January, LaBrecque sent a letter to Sen. Russell Black, R-Franklin, the lead plaintiff and winner of Saviello’s former seat. He asked Black “to disclose your source of money used to pay for all your legal costs.”

Black didn’t respond to LaBrecque. But a few days later, LaBrecque received a letter from Adam Cote, an attorney at Drummond Woodsum, which represented Black in the case. Cote suggested LaBrecque didn’t understand the nature of the case, that his inquiry was meant to promote his radio show and that he should be more upfront about his compensation from Avangrid with his audience.

With that avenue of questioning blocked, LaBrecque reached out to another plaintiff, Chad Grignon, a former Republican state representative from Athens. Grignon then asked Drummond Woodsum to clarify how he became a plaintiff and how his legislative title was used.

“I need to tell the public who is paying my legal bills,” he wrote in an email.

Grignon got a response the next day from attorney Jeana McCormick. She said she found his note puzzling, because he had signed the engagement letter and was sent every pleading in the now-closed case.

“The engagement letter made it clear that you were not responsible for any legal bills,” she concluded. “One of your co-plaintiffs, Tom Saviello, has been responsible for any costs or fees.”

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