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Legislative Committee Threatens to Subpoena Turnpike Officials
03/11/2011   Reported By: Josie Huang

Several weeks into a state probe, it's still a mystery where $157,000 in gift certificates for hotels and restaurants bought by the Maine Turnpike Authority all went. Now, the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee is requesting that top officials and board members at the quasi-state agency testify before lawmakers, potentially under oath.

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"We can ask questions of them with respect to their knowledge about this roughly $160,000 funds that we can't seem to track down," said State Senator Roger Katz, a Republican from Augusta.

Katz is the commitee's co-chair and he said among those who will be called to the committee is the turnpike authority's former executive director, Paul Violette, who had distributed the gift certificates without keeping any records. He resigned Monday.

The committee also voted to subpoena several businesses that sold certificates to the turnpike authority, but have not responded to requests for information.

We haven't heard from them and it would be nice to know what documents they might have," Katz said.

Among the businesses that may be subpoened for records are the high-end Portland Harbor Hotel and Leading Hotels of the World, a luxury hotel company. Calls to both businesses were not returned by airtime.

The committee knows the dollar amounts for the purchased gift certicates through credit card statements, and invoices from the turnpike authority. But it needs the help of the 17 vendors that provided the certificates.

"We are trying to confirm with the vendors what that transactions was for, that it was for the purchase of gift certificates and trying to confirm as much as we can who received those gift certificates from the MTA, and who redeemed them," said Beth Ashcroft. She is the director of the state watchdog group that works with the legislative committee, called the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, or OPEGA.

As to who the recipients are, all investigators have to go on right now is a memo Violette wrote in December to OPEGA, in which he named eight civic, preservation and trade groups he thought had received donations.

But some of the groups on the list, including the Saco-Biddeford Chamber of Commerce, report receiving no more than several hundred dollars in gift certificates from the turnpike authority in recent years.

One of the groups, named, Family Crisis Services, which assists domestic abuse victims, says it got nothing from the turnpike authority, even though Violette had named it as a recipient of one of the larger donations.

"The responses we've been receiving match what you've been told so that was one of the reasons the committee took the next step today to think about inviting people to come in for questioning," said Ashcroft.

The $157,000 was part of about a half a million the authority spent on contributions and donations to outside organizations between 2005 and 2007. Some groups on Violette's list say while they never got gift certificates, they did get checks over the last decade, ranging from a couple hundred dollars for the Salvation Army to several thousand dollars for Spurwink Services.

Some committee members are skeptical that the turnpike authority should be allowed to give money to groups that have nothing to do with its mission, taking care of the 106-mile toll road.

Republicans have been the harshest in their criticism of the authority, and have spoken of increasing oversight of the agency and preventing certain practices, like the agency's use of outside lobbyists.

Some Democrats have rebuked the Turnpike's practices while maintaining that the problems are with the accounting department and not the Turnpike Authority itself.

"We should go forward in a way that doesn't throw the baby out with the bathwater," said State Representative Margaret Craven, a Lewiston Democrat. "I would be hoping that we keep this organization in place and put safeguards in place that make sure that their work was much more accountable in the future."

Senator Andrea Boland, a Democrat from Sanford, agreed. She said that at least 95 percent of an audit of the turnpike authority by OPEGA was positive.

State Senator David Trahan, a Republican from Waldoboro who's been among the most vocal critics of the turnpike's spending, said contrary to what others might think, he's not motivated by partisan politics.

"All these things were reminding me of my childhood and growing up poor," said Trahan. "So maybe I was a little red in the face when I was questioning and I was a little upset it had nothing to do with partisanship. It's just that I didn't like to see an agency spend money like this."

The committee will meet again to discuss the turnpike authority next month. Turnpike authority officals and board members have until March 23rd to say whether they will make the April 15 meeting, and produce any records they have on the gift certificates. Committee co-chair Katz says that if any of them refuse, the use of subpoenas may be necessary.



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