Matt Wagner of Knox, Maine, attends a rally after supporters of "No CMP Corridor" submitted more than 75,000 signatures to election officials at the State Office Building in Augusta, Maine, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020 Opponents of a proposed $1 billion transmission line aimed at bringing Canadian hydropower to the New England grid collected more than enough signatures to put the proposal to a statewide vote, officials said Monday. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

A Kennebec County Superior Court judge sided with opponents of Central Maine Power’s proposed powerline project Monday by allowing a referendum aimed at defeating the project to continue despite proof that some signatures were gathered illegally.

The decision deals a serious blow to supporters of the $1 billion project, who are likely to appeal the ruling. CMP-funded political action committee Clean Energy Matters director Jon Breed said Monday the group is reviewing the decision before taking next steps.

It is the latest development in a court effort by CMP to defeat the November referendum that poses a threat to the project as it makes its way through the regulatory process. In addition, two groups backed by stakeholders in the project have spent a combined $9.5 million this year in advertising against the referendum.

Former CMP employee Delbert Reed has argued the referendum should be invalidated because paid notaries engaged in other activities for the campaign, a violation of state law. He charged that those signatures, combined with duplicates submitted by grassroots group Say No to NECEC, would knock enough signatures off the nearly 70,000 submitted to invalidate the effort. He was represented by attorneys who also represent Clean Energy Matters.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap disagreed. He found a total of 16,332 signatures were ultimately not valid earlier this month, leaving the referendum with over 66,000 signatures — enough to clear the threshold of about 63,000 signatures needed to get on the November ballot. He had previously certified the effort in March.

While he found some signatures were duplicates or collected illegally — some notaries admitted to doing additional work for the campaign — he said those actions did not “color the integrity of the efforts” to void the campaign outright.

Clean Energy Matters hired a private investigator to observe people involved in signature gathering, including one woman hired to notarize petitions who was also sorting and organizing petitions at a field office in Portland.

Dunlap weighed specifically whether some notaries were in the process of engaging in non-notarial services to the referendum effort when they administered oaths to circulators, a practice that a 2017 state law explicitly prohibits. Those who were not providing non-notarial services at the time they engaged in those other services were validated by Dunlap.

Kennebec County Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy agreed, and she also wrote in her ruling that Dunlap had adequately investigated the issue and did not need to conduct an evidentiary hearing. Dunlap had just over a week to review the issues raised by Reed after Murply sent the issue back to the secretary of state’s office due to Maine’s constitutional rules.

Reed had argued Dunlap could have done more to investigate fraudulent signatures and abused his power by not doing so. But Murphy wrote that speculating on actions Dunlap could have taken “is not determinative when assessing whether what the Secretary did do constitutes an abuse of discretion.”