Ethics commission again behind closed doors in powerline case

·4 min read

Jun. 18—For the second week in a row, the state ethics board met behind closed doors Friday to wrestle with whether a political consultant should disclose their contributions in opposition to a powerline expansion project.

At issue is whether Stop the Corridor, a non-profit, limited liability corporation, should be required to register as a ballot question committee under Maine's campaign finance laws.

The LLC has been active for months, including purchasing television advertisements, as it opposes an ongoing powerline corridor expansion through western Maine being developed by Central Maine Power and Hydro-Quebec.

Documents before the commission also show Stop the Corridor sent correspondence to town clerks in Maine in 2019 as it aided in a signature-gathering campaign by another political action committee, No CMP Corridor. The petition drive was deemed unconstitutional by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in August of 2020 and never went to the voters.

On June 11, after a more than 3-hour private meeting, the commission voted unanimously to continue its pursuit of its subpoena to Stop the Corridor.

The commission voted again Friday to hold an executive session, closed to the public and the press, as it deliberated with James Monteleone, an attorney for Stop the Corrido. The commission is seeking financial records from a still-unnamed Stop the Corridor contributor in Virginia.

Following the private session, the commission voted to largely maintain the requests made in its March 16, subpoena to Stop the Corridor and its primary political consulting firm, with modifications to one question regarding television advertising. The commission asked for the documents by July 9.

The commission says it needs the records, which it will keep confidential, to determine whether the donations should be disclosed under state campaign finance laws and whether the non-profit company should have registered as a political action committee or ballot question committee under state law.

Provisions within state law allow the commission to deliberate behind closed doors on certain matters and to protect confidential information if a determination is made no ethics laws were violated.

Newell Auger, an attorney for Clean Energy Matters, a political action committee, filed a protest Friday over the secretive deliberations of the commission. The PAC supports the powerline corridor, known as the New England Clean Energy Connect.

Auger argued that state law does not authorize the commission to keep the subjects of its investigation secret.

"This request for confidentiality is not authorized by 21-A M.R.S. § 1003(3-A), the statute governing investigations by the Commission, and wholly indefensible under the State Public Records Laws," Auger wrote. "Moreover, we believe any continuing grant of confidentiality to these two entities — that are simultaneously refusing to comply with duly executed subpoenas by the Commission — is a noticeable departure from prior investigations and will create a dangerous precedent."

But an attorney for the commission said it can exercise discretion as it investigates.

Jonathan Wayne, the commission's executive director, said Stop the Corridor asked that the commission keep names in the subpoena confidential under the laws that govern the commission "because they constitute 'sensitive political or campaign information' belonging to the organization or "financial information not normally available to the public."

Complicating transparency issues for the commission is its use of online video conferencing to conduct its meetings, including its closed-door sessions. While it has broadcast the open portions of its meetings on YouTube, there is no public access to the Zoom meeting room so those watching the proceedings have no ability to know who else is participating in the meeting, even as an audience member.

"If the Commission were meeting in person and not virtually, the entities in question would have to appear in person before the Commission or, at a minimum, have an attorney do so," Auger writes.

The commission on Friday also blocked public access to a recording of its public proceedings on YouTube after one of the commissioners inadvertently disclosed a name of one of the consultants involved.

"STC has requested that we remove the name from our recordings of the open session. We are evaluating that request, including by consulting with our attorney," Wayne wrote in an email message to the Press Herald. "We are balancing the imperative of Maine's open meetings law with the direction in law to keep certain investigative information confidential."

Wayne also said the commission "prefers to operate as openly as possible" and that is why it has made many of the documents in the case available online, even though the names in question remain redacted.

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