A ballot question committee representing the Canadian energy company Hydro-Quebec could face a significant fine from state election regulators for the late disclosure of campaign activity. Meanwhile, a state lawmaker is trying to stop the company’s efforts to convince Maine voters to approve a controversial $1 billion transmission project at the ballot box in November.
Hydro-Quebec formed its ballot question committee last fall and announced that it would work to defeat a referendum aimed at scuttling a project Central Maine Power calls the New England Clean Energy Connect.
Hydro-Quebec's sole shareholder is the government of Quebec, and that has raised questions about foreign influence in a Maine election.
And then last month, Hydro-Quebec amended its campaign finance report, showing nearly $100,000 in spending — a month before it had formed the ballot committee.
“The law is in place to make sure that folks who are participating in ballot question committees are transparent and forthcoming about what they’re doing," says state Rep. Kent Ackley.
Ackley, an independent from Monmouth, has filed a complaint with the Maine Ethics Commission asserting that Hydro-Quebec’s ballot committee has broken a law requiring timely disclosure of campaign activity.
The Maine Ethics Commission, which enforces the state’s election laws, also spotted the late filing. And Commission Director Jonathan Wayne confirmed in an email that the committee could face a penalty in the "tens of thousands."
A fine could be determined by the commission’s five-member board next month, but in the meantime, Ackley is hoping to convince legislative leaders to allow an emergency bill that would prohibit Hydro-Quebec or other foreign entities from participating in a Maine election.
Ackley says he doesn’t know if he has the votes on the Legislative Council to get the bill heard during the current session. "But it’s going to be hard for me to imagine that folks would want to sit on their hands and not do anything in the face of foreign influence on a matter that Mainers are going to be voting on.”
Ackley’s proposal was prompted by a report by Maine Public Radio News last month explaining that Maine election law does not restrict foreign entities from operating or contributing to ballot question committees.
Federal law does prohibit contributions and expenditures from foreign entities in elections involving candidates, but not referenda. Ackley says his bill would close that loophole in Maine's law.
The Legislative Council’s next meeting is Jan. 23.