CONCORD - Even as it pours thousands of dollars into the fight, one of the most prominent foes of the Northern Pass hydroelectric project hides its identity and source of funds behind a Delaware-formed 501(C)(4) company.
Donald Kreis, head of New Hampshire's Office of the Consumer Advocate, says Protect the Granite State (PTGS) is within its rights to protect the identity of its donors.
But Kreis said the source of all funding in the Northern Pass debate should matter to consumers and it is thus "justifiable to draw the most skeptical inference that you can about where money like that comes from. That would be my advice to consumers. Assume the worst.''
"The organization is a 501(C)(4) whose donors choose to remain anonymous," said Protect the Granite State spokesman Jim Merrill. And that's about all Merrill and another PTGS operative will say. They declined to answer a list of questions submitted by the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News.
The talent steering the organization doesn't come cheap. Merrill is a seasoned Republican political operative and consultant who serves as New Hampshire director for the Bernstein Shur Group lobbying firm. He is also an attorney.
Judy Reardon, senior adviser to PTGS, served as chief legal counsel to Jeanne Shaheen as senator and governor, where she worked extensively on the restructuring of New Hampshire's electric industry.
PTGS is one of the biggest spenders in the high-stakes battle over the controversial plan to import 1,000 megawatts of electricity from Quebec into New England along a 192-mile transmission line through New Hampshire.
The organization does not list contributions on its website or in its printed materials. It funded a $60,000 study critical of Northern Pass. It has ads on an electronic billboard on Interstate 293. It has given away hats, signs, buttons and other campaign-style materials; purchased full-page color ads in the New Hampshire Sunday News and Concord Monitor; and paid for several full-color flyers mailed to residents across the state.
There is money flowing from both sides as the adjudicatory hearings before a statewide planning board for big energy projects grind on toward a 2018 conclusion. Northern Pass partners have invested in promoting the project, as have supporters like the IBEW electrical workers union, but those sources are identified.
Grass-roots opposition groups, primarily in the North Country, and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, have been fighting the project openly through the judicial system, in regulatory proceedings and in the court of public opinion since it was proposed in 2010.
But PTGS wasn't established until September of last year, when it was incorporated in Delaware as a 501(C)(4). As such, it can keep its donors anonymous, but is not authorized to accept tax-deductible contributions like 501(C)(3) charitable groups.
"Protect the Granite State is spreading false and misleading information about the project," said Eversource spokesman Martin Murray. "Because their funders are secret, there is no one to hold accountable. Regardless of your opinion on Northern Pass, it should be concerning that an anonymous group has invested so much money into misleading the public as it attempts to stymie a clean energy project and influence New Hampshire energy policy."
No paper trail
Reardon, senior adviser to Protect the Granite State, says attempts to discredit the organization are a diversion by Northern Pass partners.
She called Northern Pass a ''floundering project." While declining to identify its funding, she said PTGS is a "grassroots organization that is helping to provide a voice for the thousands of New Hampshire residents, businesses and communities who recognize that Northern Pass will permanently scar our state and damage our economy with no real or lasting benefits.''
Every attempt to follow the PTGS paper trail leads to a dead end. The Delaware incorporation process was handled by Corporate Creations, a registration agency based in Florida. PTGS lists a New Hampshire address of 23 Dutton Road, Pelham, the home of Patricia McCarron. She is also listed as president, although she is not listed on the PTGS website.
McCarron's agency, Yellin-McCarron based in Salem, has done extensive political messaging on energy issues.
Consumers for Sensible Energy, another anonymous group that emerged to fight natural gas pipeline proposals in Massachusetts, paid the firm more than $1 million in the first two months of 2016, according to Bay State lobbying disclosures.
Consumers for Sensible Energy and PTGS share many connections, including some of the same key players and very similar presentation in their websites.
NEPGA denies connection
The $60,000 study funded by PTGS was produced by energy consultant Susan Tierney, who crafted an earlier and similar analysis for the New England Power Generators Association. The industry trade group representing independent power plant owners has actively opposed Northern Pass as unfair competition to its members, given the project's affiliation with a regulated utility that enjoys ratepayer support.
NEPGA President Dan Dolan says his organization has no connection with either Consumers for Sensible Energy or Protect the Granite State, even though power plant owners have a lot to lose if 1,000 megawatts of new electricity starts pumping into the New England grid.
"It's a perfectly reasonable question, and I can tell you unequivocally that NEPGA is not financing any of that, either directly or indirectly," he said.
The organization has invested heavily as an intervener in the Northern Pass hearings and throughout the regulatory process, but not as a source of funding for other opposition groups, according to Dolan.
"NEPGA has members," said Consumer Advocate's Kreis, "so just because the association isn't funding anything like that doesn't mean individual members of NEPGA might not be doing it. Just think of who has a financial interest in making sure Northern Pass doesn't get built."
Not subject to a vote
In the end, Northern Pass is not subject to a public vote or referendum, and will be decided by an adjudicatory process now underway, and afterwards most likely in the courts. The merits of the application should prove decisive, not any particular PR campaign, says Kreis.
"I totally get why it's important, but I don't care," he said of the funding sources for the campaigns. "I take everything on its merits. I don't waste any of my time worrying about who is behind any particular voice in the public policy debate."
The Office of Consumer Advocate (OCA) is an independent state agency created by the Legislature to represent residential customers of New Hampshire's regulated public utilities that provide electric, natural gas or water services.
The OCA primarily fulfills this responsibility by participating in proceedings before the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), but is not part of the PUC. The Consumer Advocate reports to the Residential Ratepayers Advisory Board, consisting of members appointed by the governor and certain legislative leaders, and has a staff of four in addition to Kreis.