AUGUSTA, Maine — A Franklin County resident allied with Central Maine Power asked a Maine court on Friday to overturn a decision by Secretary of State Matt Dunlap to green-light a question for the November ballot to kill the utility’s $1 billion hydropower corridor proposal.
Clean Energy Matters, the utility’s political action committee, said in a Friday news release that the court challenge had been filed. The group has alleged that opponents of the project may have violated the state’s signature gathering laws.
Dunlap’s office has said it did not have the time to review those complaints before declaring the referendum had roughly 70,000 signatures, cleared the threshold to qualify a referendum effort for the Maine ballot. The case in Kennebec County Superior Court could be decided by April.
The complaint from former CMP operations manager Delbert Reed charges that Dunlap may have accepted up to 17,000 invalid signatures gathered in violation of Maine state law, including duplicate signatures, signatures from voters who do not live in their reported towns, undated signatures and more. He is represented by Newell Augur, who also works for Clean Energy Matters, and lobbyist Josh Tardy, according to the complaint.
CMP is taking the referendum threat seriously, dumping more than $2 million into Clean Energy Matters by 2019’s end. Opponents have used the company’s flagging reputation to bolster its arguments against the corridor. A judge could order enough signatures invalidated to stop the referendum altogether.
The lawsuit is the most recent development in an already contentious campaign that has been waged on the airwaves and before the Legislature’s ethics commission. In particular, Clean Energy Matters has worked to undercut its opponents’ credibility with recent ethics complaints.
The Maine Ethics Commission decided to investigate one claim earlier this week: whether dark-money group Stop the Corridor — a limited liability company that does not have to reveal its donors under federal law — should have registered as a political committee.
It declined to investigate Say No to NECEC — the grassroots organization leading the referendum effort — and levied a $2,500 fine against Mainers for Clean Energy, a gas generator-backed political committee backing the anti-corridor effort, for providing late notice to backers that they needed to file with the state as major donors.
The lawsuit came about after Augur sent a letter to Dunlap on Feb. 27 saying a woman hired to notarize signatures on Say No’s behalf — the main group behind a referendum opposing the utility’s $1 billion proposed project — engaged in other services for the campaign, including sorting and organizing petitions.
State law says notaries are not allowed to provide other services to the campaign. It’s not clear who hired the woman.
Former state Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, an organizer with Say No to NECEC said he had anticipated a court filing but had not seen it.
“They’re going to do everything they can to stop the citizens because they’re afraid the citizens will say no,” he said of Central Maine Power.