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A key official testifies for hours in trial over CMP transmission line

FILE - Heavy machinery is used to cut trees to widen an existing Central Maine Power power line corridor to make way for new utility poles, April 26, 2021, near Bingham, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
FILE - Heavy machinery is used to cut trees to widen an existing Central Maine Power power line corridor to make way for new utility poles, April 26, 2021, near Bingham, Maine.

A key witness in the Central Maine Power corridor trial testified Tuesday that developers of the project were repeatedly forced to alter construction to keep it on schedule and financially viable amid a slew of permit and legal challenges.

But the witness’s assertions were challenged multiple times during cross examination by Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Bolton.

Thorn Dickinson was the first witness in a jury trial that could determine if the project is ever finished. He's the retired president of New England Clean Energy Connect, the company created by CMP's parent company, Avangrid, to steer the $1 billion transmission corridor that was halted by voters in 2021, and the plaintiff in the case.

And his testimony was designed to bolster the NECEC's central claim: that the referendum violated the company's vested rights, a legal theory that could invalidate Maine voters' decision.

Avangrid's lead attorney, John Aromando, walked Dickinson through four hours of testimony involving an array of timelines and a long list of acronyms — so long that the nine-member jury was given a glossary for reference.

"Did NECEC LLC, or Avangrid Networks, create or expedite its construction schedule for the purpose of vesting rights?" Armando asked Dickinson.

"No," Dickinson replied.

"What drove the construction schedule for NECEC?" Armando asked.

"It was always about achieving our commercial operation date," Dickinson said.

The plaintiffs' goal was to demonstrate to the jury that NECEC and Avangrid made construction decisions in 2020 and 2021 in good faith — and not necessarily to build a vested rights claim that could subvert a potentially bad referendum result.

But defendants in the case used an array of confidential memos and emails from Avangrid executives to construct an alternate narrative.

It hinges on the assertion that project developers began preparing for a vested rights claim as early as 2020, then shifted construction decisions to strengthen that claim, even as they privately acknowledged that doing so would increase their financial exposure.

Those moves included changing the schedule to place transmission poles at a cost well above original estimates just before the referendum was certified by the secretary of state in 2021.

Bolton, the assistant attorney general defending the Maine Public Utilities Commission and the Bureau of Parks and Lands in the lawsuit, challenged Dickinson about the timetable.

"So isn't it true, Mr. Dickinson, that you wanted to get poles erected before the secretary of state issued her Feb. 22, 2021 decision?" Bolton asked.

"Our goal was to get poles put in the ground wherever we could, whenever we could, in order to hold our COD," Dickinson replied.

COD refers to the commercial operation date, or deadline, to finish the corridor project.

Dickinson said that date, which had already been pushed back amid permit delays and legal challenges, was the driving force behind installing transmission poles.

And he also acknowledged that doing so would strengthen the vested rights claim.

"We knew that by doing that we could vest the project — and we wanted to vest the project," he said. "We also knew that Feb. 22 was a possible date that might matter. Of course, in the end, the date that mattered was Nov. 2."

Nov. 2 was the day nearly 60% of Maine voters decided to scuttle the project.

Whether that result stands — or if the corridor project moves forward — will be determined by the jury, which will hear more from Dickinson on Wednesday.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.