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Lawmakers Troubled by Maine Turnpike Authority Expenditures
03/08/2011   Reported By: Josie Huang

Paul Violette may have resigned as executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority amid a public probe of the agency's finances. But the legislative investigation continues into the agency's inability to account for where Violette distributed $157,000 in gift certificates, including some for upscale restaurants and hotels.

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And lawmakers say what they're finding out is troubling. "I think it's fair to say the information that we got from the Turnpike Authority is just not completely accurate," says Sen. Roger Katz, the Republican from Augusta chairing the Government Oversight Commitee.

Katz says that staff have been contacting the hotel chains and restaurants from which the Turnpike Authority says it purchased the gift certificates to give to a variety of organizations, including civic groups and trade groups.

"We were provided some fairly specific information from the Authority of gift cards in particular amounts purchased on particular dates, and it's safe to say the information we've been able to retrieve from some of the vendors just doesn't match up with what we've been told," Katz says.

There are other discrepancies. Although Violette says he did not keep a record of who got what gift certificates and how much, he created a short list of organizations that he thought might have received contributions, and submitted it in December to a state watchdog group auditing the Authority.

At least one of the groups that Violette recalls as having been a recipient of what he described as larger donations--the social service agency, Family Crisis Services--says it never got a cent from the Turnpike Authority.

"I'm just horrified that the public will have a perception that we've been involved in this mess. And I just hate it," says Lois Reckitt, executive director of Family Crisis Services--formerly Family Crisis Shelter, as Violette refers to in his list. Reckitt says Violette served on the group's board from 1990 to 1993, but she has not heard from him since.

Reckitt says her accountant scoured their financial records between 2004 and 2011, as requested by the Government Oversight committee about two weeks ago, and found nothing. "I think initially he was forgetful of his connection with us and whether or not it was involved in this stuff. I hope. I mean, I can't believe he would deliberately sandbag us," she says.

Reckitt says she contacted Violette in the last year in hopes he could help out when her agency was trying to retire a mortgage on a shelter, but never got a response. "So maybe we're a charity he likes, but if he does, he sure never sends us any money."

Violette listed some other groups as having received more than the usual donation of $100 to $500 over several years. Calls to Friends of Scarborough Marsh and Maine Preservation, where Violette used to serve on the board of trustees, went unanswered.

The Maine Better Transportation Association, however, reports that it did receive gift cards from the Turnpike Authority, which is a member of the trade group. Exceutive Director Maria Fuentes says the Turnpike Authority gave her group gift certificates for use at Marriott and Fairmont hotels, and restauarants, averaging about $1,100 each year, over a seven-year period.

"We either put them in an auction that we have or a raffle that we have to generate funding for scholarships," she says. "So these are events that we hold every year, and certainly the Turnpike Authority, like many of our members, have donated to those events."

The Saco-Biddeford Chamber of Commerce, which was described in Violette's memo as two separate chambers, also describes a similar situation, albeit for much less money: three gift certificates to local restaurants worth $400 from the Turnpike Authority between 2004 and 2011.

Craig Pendleton is the Chamber's executive director and says he was concerned by the Turnpike's bookeeping practices, but says there was nothing wrong or unusual with Violette's donations to the Chamber. "Clearly, with a $100 gift certificate, the Maine Turnpike Authority wasn't trying to buy influence from the Biddeford-Saco Chamber, nor were we asking them for anything special in return either."

The Maine Turnpike Authority says it continues to do its best to work with the legislative committee. Scott Tompkins is spokesman. "To the best of my knowledge, we have given the Government Oversight Committee everything that it asked for, int erms of the gift cards or gift certificates that Mr. Violette recollected providing to certain organizations--that's it exactly, it's his recollection."

The Government Oversight Committee meets Friday to continue its investigation of the Turnpike Authority's finances. It's asked the Attorney General's Office to, among other things, report on the appropriateness of the Turnpike making donations to different organizations, be they private or charitable.



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