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Ex-Maine Turnpike Head Invokes 5th in Turnpike Expenditure Inquiry
04/15/2011   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Testimony today from a legislative inquiry into alleged fiscal improprieties at the Maine Turnpike Authority sounded as if it could have been scripted from an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Former MTA executive director Paul Violette assumed the leading role as lawmakers grilled the former CEO about nearly $1 million the agency spent on meals and travel between 2005 and 2009. Violette refused to respond to questions about the more than $200,000 worth of expenses he personally accrued during that time period. 

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Ex-Maine Turnpike Head Invokes 5th in Turnpike Exp Listen

Members of the Legislature's Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability had been waiting for weeks to ask ex-Maine Turnpike Authority Executive Director Paul Violette about the more than $200,000 in expenses he had racked up all over the world between 2005 and 2009. The former CEO--who was earning $128,000 annually before he resigned earlier this year--took a seat before the committee's Senate Chair, Roger Katz.

"My name is Paul Violette and I live in Portland Maine," he said. "And what dates were you the executive director of the Turnpike Authority?" asked Katz. "From January of 1988 to 2011," Violette responded.

But that was the extent of the information that members of the legislative panel would get from Violette, who relied heavily on his attorney, Peter DeTroy, throughout the 45-minute inquiry.

But that wasn't because Katz wasn't trying. The Augusta Republican tried to get to Violette to elaborate on gift cards totaling more than $150,000 and other travel expenses that included visits to some of the finest hotels and resturants in Europe and the U.S. But Violette repeatedly invoked the protection of the Constitution's Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination.

Katz: "We have now since learned, sir, that there are over $200,000 dollars of those purchases, and not all of them were gift certficates. In addition to the written submissions, Mr. Violette, you came before us and sat there and told us that all of these gift cards went to charitable and civic organizations. Was that true sir?"

Violette: "Sen. Katz, on the advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer your question and in accordance with my constitutional privilege against self-incrimination."

Katz continued to try and find out more about expenses for unnamed individuals that Violette was paying for during his trips to Montreal, New York City, Las Vegas, Newport, R.I., France, Bermuda, Puerto Rico, the Czech Republic and other destinations.

And then there was the use of the MTA's credit card to purchase a $1,500 tuxeudo, and the MTA gift certificates that paid for trips to a Portland health and beauty spa.

"We also understand that you, Mr. Violette, redeemed those gift certificates on Sept. 21 for a $500 spa treatment, and on Nov. 25, $739 for hair styling and a spa package," Katz said. "Could you tell us what legitimate turnpike purpose was served by those expenditures, sir?"

DeTroy: "I advise my client not to answer."

The OPEGA panel, which began its review of the MTA's accounting practices last year, obtained slightly more information from the some of the agency's officers. Neil Libby, the MTA's chief financial officer for the last 20 years, told lawmakers that he approached Violette about his spending activities and Violette assuremd him that he would seek the MTA board's approval for the expenditures.

Libby told Katz that he thought it would be wise to write a memo to himself concerning his conversation with Violette.

Katz: "Did you have concerns that Mr. Violette may have been misusing Turnpike Authority funds at the that time?"
Libby: "No, not necessarily, I did not."
Katz: "But you had concerns that perhaps there might be a perception."
Libby: "I had concerns about the magnitude of these, and yes, I did."
Katz: "And that it might actually damage the reputation and position of the Turnpike Authority."
Libby: "Absolutely."
Katz: "You wrote yourself a memo--who else did you report that to, sir?"
Libby: "No one."

Katz, who practices law in Augusta, at times assumed the tone of an attorney in the midst of a deposition. Minority Democrats on the OPEGA Committee submitted a letter midway through the inquiry recommending that the committee conclude the investigation.

State Sen. Nancy Sullivan said she believed the board was overstepping its legislative directive and venturing too close to becoming a tribunal on Violette.

"We have prejudiced everybody in the state right now with the information out, and if we really care about justice and people getting a fair hearing, we've already put this man on trial here," Sullivan said. "And unfortunately, put the Maine Turnpike on trial. And if you're really open for business, I'm not sure that this looks great in our papers across the nation--people looking to come here and watch us tear apart a business--and the turnpike is a business."

Sullivan joined others on the committee in recommending the the OPEGA investigators turn their findings over to the Maine Attorney General's Office for review and possible further investigation.


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