March 8, 2011

Concerns grow after Maine Turnpike's chief quits

The departure comes amid questions about the agency's handling of finances

By J. Hemmerdinger
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — The chairman of the Maine Turnpike Authority’s board of directors said he’s troubled by unexplained spending during the tenure of longtime Executive Director Paul Violette, who resigned Monday, two months after a state review criticized the authority’s spending practices.

“When you have a figure of $157,000 in gift cards and you don’t have any records, you are going to have a problem,” said board Chairman Gerard Conley Sr., referring to money the authority spent on gift cards and gift certificates, some from posh hotels, in 2005 and 2006.

Violette and the turnpike authority, a quasi-state agency that operates and maintains the 106-mile toll road, have been under fire since the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability released its review in January.

The report criticized the authority, which generates about $100 million a year from tolls, for high salaries and an overly close relationship with an engineering firm. The report also revealed the purchase of $157,000 worth of gift cards, which the authority said were donated to various organizations.

Turnpike officials have largely been unable to provide the names of the gift card recipients, citing a lack of records.

Conley said Monday night that he expects Violette resigned with the knowledge that investigators will uncover more details. “I assume the boom is going to burst,” he said.

Conley said that neither he nor other board members knew about the gift card program until recently. “I don’t know what the hell happened with the gift certificate program,” he said.

When asked whether there was misconduct by Violette, Conley said, “I don’t want to think that, but I’m afraid there may have been.”

Despite the controversy, Conley called Violette a “good man” whose “whole intent was to make the Maine Turnpike work.”

State lawmakers from both parties said Monday that the shake-up is positive for an agency that needs reform.

“I think Mr. Violette has become a lightning rod, and perhaps it will be a good thing going forward,” said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, a co-chairman of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee.

Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, former House chairwoman of the Government Oversight Committee, said the authority under Violette would “continually block” lawmakers’ requests for information. Its executives had a “really bad attitude,” she said.

“From Paul, it was total arrogance. From others at the top, it was, 'We don’t have to answer to you,’” Hill said. “They did not accept that they worked for the people of Maine.”

Rumors of Violette’s resignation broke Friday, when the authority’s executive board held a closed-door meeting to discuss personnel issues. The board reconvened in private Monday morning before publicly announcing the departure of Violette, who earned about $130,000 a year, according to turnpike authority spokesman Scott Tompkins.

Conley said he and other board members were “somewhat surprised” when Violette told them of his intention to step down.

“He said he decided he had lost his credibility with the Legislature. He felt he was all burned out. And he thought that, for the betterment of the turnpike authority ... he (should) submit his resignation,” Conley said.

In his resignation letter, Violette said his leadership had become a “distraction,” and “possibly even the central issue” cited by lawmakers who were criticizing the authority.

Tompkins said Violette’s resignation, effective immediately, is no admission of wrongdoing. Violette has not returned repeated calls for comment.

While his letter did not address the gift cards, Violette said his departure may help the authority make some of the organizational improvements suggested in the state review.

One change announced Friday in response to the report is that the turnpike authority will now put its engineering work out for bids.

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