Conservative and liberal activists clashed Wednesday over a secret recording of a Sept. 4 conference call among several nonprofit groups about formulating a response to a political ad attacking U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, the Democratic candidate for governor.

The conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center is accusing the groups of breaking a federal law that prohibits certain types of nonprofit organizations from advocating for a political candidate.

The liberal Maine People’s Alliance, however, contends that Steve Robinson, a writer for the policy center’s news service, The Maine Wire, illegally recorded a call in which he had not been invited to participate.

Both sides have requested formal investigations by Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat.

Tim Feeley, spokesman for the AG’s office, said “we are aware of the concern and will evaluate it.”

The TV ad discussed during the conference call was paid for by the Republican Governor’s Association, which supports the reelection of Gov. Paul LePage in the three-way race, which also includes independent Eliot Cutler. The RGA ad attacks Michaud’s position on immigration issues.

Mike Tipping, the spokesman for the Maine People’s Alliance, one of the liberal groups that participated in the conference call, said the groups all have an interest in immigration issues and were discussing “an educational response to false anti-immigrant ads.” The group decided to write letters to the editor and invite the governor to meet with immigrants, he said.

Tipping and Robinson, who made the recording, are both freelance columnists for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

Tipping said Robinson violated state law when he recorded the 54-minute call.

Maine is a single-party consent state, meaning it’s legal to record a conversation as long as one of the parties directly involved is aware that it’s being done. However, the law prohibits “the interception of wire and oral communications by any person other than (A) the sender or receiver of the communication; (B) a person within the range of normal unaided hearing or subnormal hearing corrected to not better than normal; or C) a person given prior authority by the sender or receiver.”

Matt Gagnon, the policy center’s chief executive officer, characterized the illegal recording accusation as a “nuisance complaint” designed to divert attention from the groups’ illegal electioneering.

“They got caught red-handed and they’re trying to distract from it,” Gagnon said. “These groups should not be talking to each other, trying to spin for a gubernatorial candidate.”

LePage has close ties to the policy center, having hired several of its former staff members into his administration.

Maine Equal Justice Partners, which organized and moderated the call, has a 501(c)(3) designation from the Internal Revenue Service. The law prohibits such organizations from supporting a political candidate, but they can participate in policy discussions and public education efforts. Tipping’s group, the Maine People’s Alliance, has a 501(c)(4) designation from the IRS, and it can engage in political campaigning.

Robyn Merrill, senior analyst for Maine Equal Justice Partners, can be heard at the beginning of the recording addressing concerns about the propriety of the call. She says, “I’d like to frame this as a way of educating and responding to misinformation and mean-spirited attacks.”

Merrill’s group has been leading the opposition to new rules, proposed by LePage, to deny general assistance benefits to undocumented immigrants, including asylum seekers who entered the country legally but have not been able to get their visas renewed.

That policy has been deemed unconstitutional by Mills, the attorney general, and the courts have been asked to clarify.

The executive director of Merrill’s group, Sarah Gagne-Holmes, said the groups that participated in the call have been actively engaged in the fight against LePage’s proposal. Gagne-Holmes did not participate in the conference call and hasn’t listened to the entire recording, but she said the group kept the conversation from straying into electioneering.

“I know some people on the call may have made comments trying to steer the conversation towards something other than public education, but it was repeatedly brought back that the point of the call was with regards to public education,” she said.

At another point in the recording, a Maine Peoples Alliance staffer can be heard saying the ad attacking Michaud has been effective in pushing “Democrats who are a little bit wiggly” into LePage’s column.

Gagne-Holmes said callers are typically asked to identify themselves when they participate in a conference call.

In the recording of the call, which was posted to YouTube, a caller’s identity is announced when he joins.

Tipping, of the MPA, claims that Robinson, the writer, violated the law because he was not invited to join the call and did not identify himself when asked if there was anyone else on the line. At one point there was a noise indicating someone had joined, but did not respond to the group’s request to identify him or her self, Tipping said.

According to the Bangor Daily News, Robinson provided the newspaper’s reporter, Mario Moretto, with a copy of the recording on Tuesday and said it was from a caller whose identity he agreed to protect. Robinson later admitted he recorded the call, which he accessed with information provided by a state employee, the newspaper reported.

Gagnon said Robinson never made up a source, because he was the caller whose identity he agreed to protect.

“Steve was attempting to protect his identity as the source of the recording, because he did not want to prevent future opportunities for investigation into this kind of nefarious, potentially illegal activity,” Gagnon said.

The executive director of Maine Peoples Alliance, Jesse Graham, called the maneuver “sleazy.”

“The right’s attacks on Maine immigrants seem to have now crossed the line from sleazy scapegoating into outright criminality,” Graham said in a written statement. “We stand by our advocacy for Maine immigrants and against these kinds of attacks. We ask that the Maine Heritage Policy Center fire any employees that were involved in this phone hacking and we anticipate a criminal investigation as well.”

Gagnon said the policy center would not fire Robinson and would use the same tactics in the future if necessary.

“If we learn there are groups that are getting together when they should not be, we will absolutely be attempting to find out about it and exposing it to the light of day,” he said.