In this Tuesday, May 28, 2019, photo, homemade signs protest Central Maine Power’s controversial hydropower transmission corridor near Jackman, Maine. The power corridor would extend 53 miles from the Canadian border into Maine’s north woods. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — The staff of Maine’s ethics commission is recommending an investigation into whether one grassroots organization opposing Central Maine Power Co.’s proposed transmission line project should have filed as a political committee.

It’s also scrutinizing another corridor opponent and wants to know more about the organization’s political agenda.

The political stakes are high if the commission decides that investigating Say No to NECEC or Stop the Corridor is worthwhile. The groups could face a $2,500 fine for late registration, plus additional penalties for filing reports late if those reports meet a donation threshold. But it also could result in those groups disclosing their private donors, adding fuel to an already heated political campaign. Both complaints will be taken up next week.

Dark-money group Stop the Corridor, a limited liability company not required to disclose its donors, has run $1.3 million in TV and Facebook ads against the proposed $1 billion project which would pipe electricity through a 145-mile corridor in western Maine. It gave $50,000 of in-kind donations to the political committee No CMP Corridor.

Stop the Corridor says its goal is to influence the project through the permitting process and not the referendum campaign. CMP political committee Clean Energy Matters — which brought both ethics complaints — argued the group’s activity means Stop the Corridor should have to register as a political committee and disclose its donors.

But commission executive director Jonathan Wayne said there is not enough information about how Stop the Corridor operates and is funded to show a violation has occurred. He said there is no “direct evidence” Stop the Corridor has received more than $5,000 in contributions — the threshold needed to register as a ballot action committee — noting the group “declined to provide even a general description of” its income sources when asked by commission staff.

He said the $950,000 Stop the Corridor has spent on TV ads is meant to influence public opinion against the corridor — but does not mention the referendum specifically. Instead, Wayne indicates the commission should decide for itself whether the issue is worth revisiting for future political committees.

On the Say No complaint, the commission recommends investigating if the grassroots group should have registered as a ballot question committee, but not as a political action committee, with Michael Dunn, political committee and lobbyist registrar for the commission, saying the group’s intention was not to influence a Maine election.

The case hinges on whether donors thought Say No was soliciting donations for a citizen’s initiative effort prior to filing to collect signatures for the effort and members forming a political action committee, No CMP Corridor.

A GoFundMe page run by Say No said it was “seriously exploring” a referendum push, but Say No said the funds from that page were meant to fund legal fees for its advocacy around the permitting process for CMP’s project.

Dunn said that language might have led donors to believe they were contributing to a referendum. But he noted the commission has never discussed the idea of an “exploratory phase,” where a group might need to research an idea before moving forward.

“The staff accepts, however, that during August 2019 this particular legislative

objective … may have required significant research and consultation by Say No to NECEC before deciding to move forward,” he said.