Opponents of the $1 billion hydropower corridor attend a rally after submitting signatures to election officials outside the Maine State House on Feb. 3, 2020, in Augusta. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Maine’s campaign finance watchdog rejected a request from Central Maine Power Co. allies to investigate a top opponent of their $1 billion corridor project over a large contribution from a political group she runs to a nonprofit she also runs.

The Maine Ethics Commission called a snap meeting on Friday afternoon to handle the complaint from the CMP-run political committee Clean Energy Matters accusing Sandra Howard, who leads the nonprofit Say No to NECEC, of failing to register as a political action committee after records showed the group received $140,000 from an affiliated group.

The 4-1 vote of the commission means it will not investigate the anti-corridor side during the last three weeks of a referendum campaign that has drawn more than $60 million in spending. Opponents are aiming to kill the project by passing Question 1 on the Nov. 2 ballot, while CMP backs a no vote.

Records filed with the commission show that Say No to NECEC, which does not have to disclose donors or spending, received $140,000 from No CMP Corridor on Sept. 23 for signs and entrance fees to fairs. The latter group, which is also directed by Howard, got most of its money from a separate committee funded by power companies that will lose shares of the regional power market if the hydropower corridor is built.

Clean Energy Matters lawyer Newell Augur argued the payment could be seen as supporting efforts to influence opinions on Question 1, insinuating the money could have come from the committee funded by fossil fuel companies. He requested the Maine Ethics Commission immediately investigate whether Say No to NECEC must file with the state as a political group.

But Say No to NECEC has countered that its efforts are educational and not explicitly political. Lawyer Jaime Kilbreth said that money will be used to pay fees related to legal proceedings surrounding a public lands lease under review by the state’s environmental department after a Superior Court judge ruled against CMP. The case is likely headed to Maine’s high court.

Jonathan Wayne, the ethics commission head, said Clean Energy Matters had provided no evidence that Say No to NECEC had spent to influence the question and he had no reason to believe Kilbreth was being untruthful about the nature of the payments. A majority of commissioners agreed with his opinion.

Another nonprofit, Stop the Corridor, is in a protracted legal battle with the commission to not disclose its donors. It has resisted efforts to turn over that information confidentially so the state can determine if it violated campaign finance laws.

BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.