January 26, 2012

Disgraced Turnpike chief keeps pension

By John Richardson
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- The former executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority may go to prison for stealing from the agency, but he will keep his state pension of $5,288.51 a month.

Paul Violette is scheduled to plead guilty to felony theft on Feb. 6. He faces as much as five years in prison as part of an agreement with the attorney general's office.

In many states, Violette also could lose his state pension. Maine, however, does not have a pension forfeiture law to penalize public employees who are convicted of violating the public trust.

The Maine Turnpike Authority and its insurers could try to seize some of Violette's pension in civil court. But they don't intend to do that.

The current executive director, Peter Mills, said Violette's pension was factored into the $155,000 in restitution that he paid to the agency he led for 23 years.

"We took every bit of his cash. We actually took more money than his net worth," Mills said. "It is a true statement that he gets to keep his pension, but the pension will in large measure be used to pay off the debt he incurred" to pay restitution.

Violette's attorney said the pension will not be affected by the guilty plea, and shouldn't be.

"His (retirement fund) is protected as anybody else's is. It's the equivalent of a 401(k)," said Peter DeTroy.

There's no reason to go after a piece of Violette's pension, now that the turnpike authority has been compensated, DeTroy said. "His restitution obligation has been satisfied."

Violette was being paid about $130,000 a year when he resigned in March. He began collecting his $63,462-a-year pension in April, according to the Public Employees Retirement System.

Violette's pension includes money he contributed and money that the state contributed, although the amounts were not immediately available.

Although Violette's pension was discussed as part of his settlement with the turnpike authority, it was not raised as an issue by members of the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee.

The committee reviewed the turnpike authority last year and, after Violette refused to answer questions, forwarded its investigation of alleged financial misconduct to the attorney general's office, which filed the theft charge last week.

Roger Katz, R-Augusta, the Senate chairman of the Government Oversight Committee, said the Legislature could not act now to take Violette's pension because laws can't be applied retroactively. But he said it is worth considering a pension forfeiture law in case of future crimes.

"We really should take a look at that, going ahead," Katz said. "The good news is, (the charge against Violette) is such an unusual case. ... It's a nice comment about Maine that this is the first time we've had cause to look at this."

More than 20 states have adopted pension forfeiture laws, according to the National Association of State Retirement Administrators, including Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Passage of the laws often follows high-profile cases of theft or other misconduct by public officials.

Some states have mandatory pension forfeiture for crimes related to public duties. Others authorize the courts to pursue forfeiture on a case-by-case basis. In some cases, the forfeiture is limited to the state-funded portion of the pension.

The laws are somewhat controversial. Supporters often argue that forfeiture is just punishment and helps keep public officials honest. Opponents say it's unfair to public employees because private retirees can't lose their 401(k)s, and a mandatory pension forfeiture can be an extreme punishment for a relatively minor offense.

Violette resigned amid allegations of lavish spending and misappropriation of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The state Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability issued a report a year ago questioning the turnpike authority's purchase of hundreds of gift cards for upscale restaurants and hotels.

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