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Documents reveal NextEra's hidden attempts to derail CMP's transmission line corridor

Heavy machinery is used to clear an existing Central Maine Power electricity corridor that has been widened to make way for new utility poles, April 26, 2021, near Bingham, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP file
Heavy machinery is used to clear an existing Central Maine Power electricity corridor that has been widened to make way for new utility poles, April 26, 2021, near Bingham, Maine.

NextEra Energy’s attempts to derail a transmission corridor through western Maine involved a significant secret donation to the Maine Democratic Party in 2018 as well as the 2019 financing of a group that helped organize a referendum to scuttle the project, according to new documents released by the state’s campaign finance watchdog.

The documents provide a more complete picture of the energy giant’s efforts to halt the New England Clean Energy Connect, a $1 billion project that would dump 1,200 megawatts of Canadian hydropower into the regional grid. NextEra, which owns the Seabrook nuclear power plant in N.H., stands to lose tens of millions of dollars every year if the NECEC comes online. It spent $20 million supporting a 2021 referendum aimed at killing the project.

NextEra’s financing of the 2021 referendum was publicly disclosed, but the documents released Wednesday reveal how consultants hired by the Florida-based company originally attempted to defeat the NECEC by secretly financing two groups that became targets of investigations by the Maine Ethics Commission, the state’s campaign finance watchdog. The commission voted unanimously Wednesday to accept a pair of consent agreements that effectively end the probes into those groups, Stop the Corridor and Alpine Initiatives, after more than two years.

Under one agreement, Stop the Corridor will pay a $50,000 fine for failing to register as a ballot question committee. Had the group registered in 2019, it would have revealed NextEra as a donor helping to organize a 2020 referendum that was ultimately blocked by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court before going to voters. Under the second agreement, Alpine Initiatives will pay a $160,000 fine for failing to register as a political action committee after donating $150,000 to the Maine Democratic Party just prior to an election that gave Democrats control of the Legislature and governor’s office.

NextEra is not listed as the donor to Alpine Initiatives in the new campaign finance report, but Hawthorn Group, the Virginia-based consulting firm that the company hired to funnel funds to Stop the Corridor, is. Additionally, Paul McDonald, a Bernstein Shur attorney representing the company behind Stop the Corridor and NextEra, acknowledged during Wednesday’s commission meeting that the “client” listed in both consent agreements is the same, meaning NextEra.

McDonald also urged the commission Wednesday not to name the client — NextEra — in the consent agreements, arguing that it had entrusted Maine-based consultants to protect its anonymity while following all campaign finance laws. He said identifying the client was unfair, could cause “reputational harm” and that listing it as a donor to Stop the Corridor on a campaign finance report was all that was needed.

“That disclosure is all the public would be entitled to receive had the disclosure been made back... when the commission staff contend the filing should have been made,” he said.

Commissioners were skeptical of his arguments. However, after returning from closed-door deliberations, they ultimately agreed to keep NextEra out of the consent agreements and approved both unanimously.

Newell Augur, the attorney representing Clean Energy Matters, the political committee financed by Central Maine Power’s parent company that originally requested the investigation, argued that NextEra should be named and cited its efforts to delay and block the investigation.

“This is the playbook... to try and make sure that this information wasn’t available to the Maine people at the time of the (2021 referendum) election,” he said.

Origins of the opposition campaign

NextEra’s efforts in the anti-corridor campaign were well known by the time of the 2021 referendum, but consent agreement documents show its efforts to scuttle the project began well before that.

According to the documents, the Maine-based consultants working on NextEra’s behalf in 2018 viewed Democratic officials “as generally more likely to oppose the NECEC project.” They then set out to create a relationship with Democratic officials that might help in “lobbying activities” in the upcoming legislative session.

The consultants eyed a “substantial contribution” to the Maine Democratic Party. About two weeks before the election, one of the consultants approached the former deputy director of the party to see if Democrats could use a slug of money to help with voter turnout efforts. The consent agreement says the consultant did not identify the donor or a specific policy outcome in return for the funds. However, shortly thereafter, the consultant notified the party official that a $150,000 donation from Alpine Initiatives was forthcoming.

The donation came just four days after the limited liability company was created. It was reported in campaign finance reports by the Maine Democratic Party. There was no commercial activity by Alpine Initiatives during its entire 14 months of existence, according to investigators. According to the consent agreement, the Hawthorn Group, the consulting firm working for NextEra, helped set up the company and transferred $160,000 into its account a day before Alpine Initiatives donated to the Democratic Party.

What Alpine Initiatives received in return for that donation, if anything, is unclear.

Annina Breen, a spokesperson for the party, would only tell Maine Public that the party filed all “necessary and legally required campaign finance reports to the proper oversight authorities.”

“The MDP was never the subject of the commission’s investigation and no wrongdoing has been found or was ever even alleged on the part of the MDP,” Breen said. “We cannot comment on the actions of Alpine Initiatives – the subject of this inquiry, or any other party beyond what is contained in the Maine Ethics Commission report, and we appreciate the work of the Commission and its staff to ensure that Maine’s campaign finance laws are being followed fully.”

The party declined to release any information about past personnel.

A number of Democratic legislators opposed the NECEC and supported legislation in 2019 that would either delay or study the disputed climate change benefits of the project. However, those proposals stalled despite Democrats having full control of the Legislature. Gov. Janet Mills had expressed skepticism over the project as a candidate in 2018, but she announced that she was backing the project just two months into her first term in 2019.

First Alpine Initiative, then Stop the Corridor

The consent agreements show that NextEra and its consultants began shifting efforts toward killing the NECEC via citizens' initiative in the summer of 2019. By then a coalition of abutters and environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the National Resources Council of Maine, had been working to put the corridor on the ballot and repeal the permit issued by the Public Utilities Commission in March.

The opponents’ political committee, No CMP Corridor, later reported $85,000 in-kind donations from a mysterious group called Stop the Corridor.

In 2020, proponents of the NECEC argued before the Ethics Commission that Stop the Corridor should have to register as a political action committee and file campaign finance reports that would reveal its funders. The commission agreed to authorize the probe. In July of 2021, the Ethics Commission authorized an investigation to determine if Alpine Initiatives had been used as a pass-through entity to conceal the identity of its donors.

What followed was a lengthy investigation that largely took place out of public view. But along the way, ethics commission investigators found that Stop the Corridor had made payments to Alpine Initiatives, a company with “no commercial presence on the internet.” It was then that investigators also discovered that Alpine Initiatives had made the $150,000 donation to the Maine Democratic Party in 2018.

According to the consent agreement with Stop the Corridor, NextEra paid $95,726 to the anti-corridor group between August 2019 and the end of March 2020. It’s new finance report shows the money was spent on political consultants with Bernstein Shur and donations to No CMP Corridor.

The second referendum campaign to derail the NECEC was well underway, as was NextEra’s $20 million public financing of it. While opponents of the NECEC were victorious at the ballot box, the referendum result was ultimately undone by a series of court decisions.

The fallout

The Ethics Commission’s ratification of the two consent agreements ends the campaign finance watchdog’s investigations into Alpine Initiatives and Stop the Corridor.

Many questions remain about what investigators discovered that’s not included in the consent agreements signed by the commission and the two groups it investigated. However, the agreements stipulate that additional information uncovered by investigators will not be released by the commission or staff and that such information will be considered investigative papers. Investigative papers are shielded from Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.

Corrected: December 4, 2023 at 2:09 PM EST
Investigative papers are shielded from Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, not Freedom of Information Act.
Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.