In this Tuesday, May 28, 2019, photo, a homemade sign is posted on a telephone pole in protest of Central Maine Power's controversial hydropower transmission corridor in Jackman, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

Hydro-Quebec, the provincial Canadian energy company poised to supply hydropower to a proposed transmission line through western Maine, is joining a campaign to defeat a referendum that could scuttle the $1 billion project at the ballot box next year.

The company’s relationship with the provincial government of Quebec could draw protests from project opponents who see it as a foreign attempt to influence an election.

The Hydro-Quebec effort appears to be legal because Maine election law does not restrict foreign entities from contributing to ballot committees and because federal laws barring contributions and expenditures from foreign nationals apply only to elections involving candidates, not referendum questions.

The company in November formed a political committee anticipating that opponents of the 145-mile project will succeed in putting the proposal on the 2020 ballot. The committee, Hydro-Quebec Maine Partnership, is the latest effort by the power giant to ensure that its controversial transmission line – opposed by many of the communities it would pass through – will come to fruition.

The formation of the new committee also marks a more public-facing progression in the year-long lobbying campaign by Hydro-Quebec on behalf of its sole shareholder, the government of Quebec.

The relationship between the company and the provincial government will likely become the focus of increased scrutiny and has already prompted questions about previously unpublicized meetings held last year between Quebec officials and leadership in the Legislature, as well as with the administration of Democratic Gov. Janet Mills.

That scrutiny stems from the intertwined financial fortunes of Hydro-Quebec and the provincial government as the company seeks to expand power exports to the U.S.

Hydro-Quebec sent nearly $2.4 billion in dividends to the provincial government last year after netting $14.37 billion in revenue. Those earnings were driven in part by what the company calls “unprecedented” energy exports to the U.S. last year. Those exports and dividends stand to increase if the Maine project, called the New England Clean Energy Connect, is approved.

In its financial report last year, Hydro-Quebec dubbed the project the “biggest sales contract in our history.” But when asked to explain a series of meetings earlier this year with Mills, her staff and Republican and Democratic leaders in the Legislature, Marie-Claude Francoeur, the New England delegate from the Quebec government, told Maine Public Radio that her job was not to advocate for Hydro-Quebec or the project.

“I am not a lobbyist for Hydro-Quebec,” said Francoeur, adding that her role is to maintain regional agreements with the Quebec government.

Francoeur was responding to disclosures made by the Quebec government through the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. The law requires agents working on behalf of foreign governments to disclose political and other activities in the U.S.

The FARA disclosures show multiple meetings with Francoeur, and her public relations attache Michael Pizziferri, with Maine officials in February, March and May of this year on matters described broadly in the documents as trade, energy and climate change. The exact timing of the February meetings is not listed, but Mills announced support for the project that month.

In a statement, Lindsay Crete, a spokeswoman for Mills, said the February meeting was an introduction between the governor and Canada’s deputy ambassador to the U.S., Kirsten Hillman, and a discussion about climate change.

In May, documents show several separate meetings with Francoeur, Republican and Democratic legislative leaders and members of the governor’s administration and staff. While the Legislature was considering several bills at the time that could have delayed or torpedoed the corridor project altogether, Crete said Quebec officials did not attempt to lobby the administration or the governor’s newly hired energy director, Dan Burgess.

Statements from Democratic leaders largely echoed Francoeur’s assessment: The corridor project and related legislation may have come up, but there was no attempt to persuade leaders to defeat the anti-corridor bills.

“I report on the process,” said Francoeur, adding that Hydro-Quebec employs its own lobbyists. “I’m not there to influence it by any means.”

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, who opposes the project, said in a statement that she met with Quebec officials to discuss an array of issues, including potential greenhouse gas emission reductions and dam generation related to the project. But Gideon’s statement – as well as one from Senate President Troy Jackson’s office – did not characterize the meetings as attempts to lobby.

Had Quebec officials expressly lobbied against anti-corridor bills they might have been required to register as lobbyists with the Maine Ethics Commission, the agency that oversees Maine election and paid advocacy laws. However, triggering the lobbying registration requirement – paid influencing for at least eight hours in a month – is a high bar.

Maine and Quebec officials interviewed for this story described the meetings as brief. Hydro-Quebec’s domestic subsidiary hired its own lobbyist, Tim Walton, last year. Walton, who is no longer working for Hydro-Quebec, said he was unaware of meetings between government officials from Quebec and Maine, and that he worked for the company’s U.S. affiliate.

Walton’s former client is now behind the ballot question committee formed last month, Hydro-Quebec Maine Partnership. In response to questions from Maine Public Radio, Serge Abergel, the committee’s lead decision maker, said the committee is gearing up to provide “accurate information” if a 2020 referendum materializes.

Abergel says the committee is working independently from a Central Maine Power political action committee already spending on advertising in anticipation of a referendum.

Abergel said it’s too early to estimate how much the new committee will spend. But in response to questions about foreign nationals participating in a 2020 referendum, Abergel said the committee is operating with the understanding that contributions or expenditures are only prohibited in connection with candidate elections.

Assistant Attorney General Phyllis Gardiner, who is the legal counsel for the Maine Ethics Commission, said she had not fully researched the issue, but cited the definition of an election as pertaining to candidates in the Federal Election Campaign Act. That definition has been referenced in several Federal Election Commission advisory opinions, including one in 1989.

While Maine election law does not have that same definition, Gardiner said Maine campaign finance law does not restrict the source of contributions to a ballot question committee or political action committee.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.