AUGUSTA, Maine — A Maine judge has kicked the question of whether some signatures for a referendum aimed at killing Central Maine Power’s proposed corridor are invalid back to Secretary of State Matt Dunlap after two people said their names were forged.
The Monday order by Superior Court judge Michaela Murphy gives Dunlap’s office until April 1 to decide whether signatures gathered by opponents of the $1 billion New England Clean Energy Connect project are illegitimate after an ally of the utility brought a lawsuit earlier this month.
Attorneys for the CMP-funded political committee Clean Energy Matters who are representing Delbert Reed, a former CMP operations manager, have said that notaries hired by their opponents engaged in other campaign services. That would be a violation of state law and possibly invalidate some of the signatures that notaries validated.
The complaint is the latest tool CMP and its allies have used to try and discredit opponents, who have used the utility’s flagging reputation against the $1 billion project. But the lawsuit would strike the anti-corridor question from the November ballot if enough signatures are invalidated to bring the group below the threshold of the 63,000 or so required to make the ballot.
Project opponents submitted 70,000 signatures, easily qualifying for the November ballot, and 12,000 were thrown out. Reed alleges another 6,600 could be invalid, according to court documents. His evidence includes two notarized depositions from a state official and lawyer who alleged their signatures were forged.
They include Nina Fisher, a deputy commissioner at the Maine Department of Transportation, who said she supports the corridor and “could have suffered professional ramifications” as a result of signing the petition. The petition says she resides at 323 State St. in Augusta, her former work address at the state’s community college system.
Both sides of the lawsuit will have the chance to present evidence to Dunlap’s office, which is largely working remotely as the state grapples with increasing cases of coronavirus. The issue will then go back to the courts for a final decision.
Reed was looking to subpoena eight notaries he said were affiliated with Mainers for Local Power, a gas generator-funded political committee who hired signature gatherers for the petition drive. Murphy said Reed did not have the right to do so because he could not demonstrate Dunlap’s office failed or refused to thoroughly vet the signatures.
Mainers for Local Power declined to comment citing pending litigation. Clean Energy Matters hired a private investigator to observe people involved in signature gathering, including one woman hired to notarize petitions sorting and organizing petitions at a field office in Portland.
Dunlap said in his decision on the validity of the petitions that opponents of the initiative reached out to him on Feb. 24 and Feb. 27 that state law may have been violated, but that his staff did not have the time to investigate before the March 4 deadline.