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Mills to Take Reins at Maine Turnpike Authority
03/17/2011   Reported By: Josie Huang

Former Republican state Sen. Peter Mills will take over the reins at the Maine Turnpike Authority as the quasi-state agency tries to emerge from a cloud of scandal over its spending practices. Mills, a lawyer and two-time gubernatorial candidate, will finish out the six months left in the one-year term of former Executive Director Paul Violette, and could be reappointed by the board. Violette resigned last week after 24 years at the helm, under investigation by legislators for giving away $157,000 in gift certificates for hotels and restaurants, and failing to record who got them.

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Board members say hiring a new director is designed to restore public trust in the 550-employee agency, along with its decision to order an independent audit of turnpike finances. Mills (right) agrees.

"One of my principal goals, one of the principal themes that I have discussed with the board, is bringing a somewhat greater sense of transparency, to let the public understand that it's a well-managed and well-run organization, that it's a successful organization," he says.

Board member Jim Cloutier says that message has been lost in the state Legislature. Some legislators have proposed folding the Turnpike Authority into the Department of Transportation--something Mills and board members oppose.

"We were very sensitive in our search for an interim director to find someone who has the experience and the knowledge to both bring that message to Augusta, but also to bring the message from Augusta of what their hopes, expectations and policy ideas are," Cloutier says.

Legislators on both sides of the political aisle praised Mills' appointment--among them, State Sen. David Trahan, a Republican from Waldoboro. "Peter is a good honest man, he's very, very smart," Trahan says. "I think he would do a good job in that position. I certainly have confidence in him."

But Trahan, who's investigating the Turnpike's spending as part of the Legislature's government oversight committee, says that the agency still has many more reforms to make.

A new policy at the Turnpike Authority to require that--in addition to the executive director--the staff attorney and chief financial officer to report directly to the board is fine and good, says Trahan. But he thinks it lacks teeth, and should be put into statute, along with other ideas he supports.

"I'd like to see no more gifts and contributions to various associations," he says. "And I think that should apply to all state agencies. Taking taxpayers' money or toll money and then distributing it to your friends is not what state government should be doing with taxpayer money."

Though Trahan and others have criticized the practice, along with the agency's use of outside lobbyists, neither is expressedly prohibited in state statute.

In the meantime, Trahan's committee continues to investigate the operations at the Turnpike Authority, and plans to interview top Turnpike officials, including former Executive Director Violette on April 15. The committee is also locating gift certificate recipients and vendors, and so far has issued a subpoena for records to the Marriott hotel chain to find out who redeemed the certificates.

In the meantime, auditors hired by the Turnpike Authority from the firm of Runyon Kersteen Ouellette say they will be investigating "potentially abusive or frauduulent activities" by reviewing credit card use, gift card transactions and personal use of agency vehicles.

"Overall, the Turnpike Authority has done a fairly decent job of maintaining that road, but what they have to do is they've got to have better controls on the administrative end of it," says Democratic state Rep. Ed Mazurek, the ranking minority member on the Legislature's Transportation Committee, which is the oversight body for the Turnpike Authority.

Mazurek says that the board of directors must start meeting with the committee on an annual or semi-annual basis, and not leave it all to the executive director. But Mazurek says he's comforted that Peter Mills has filled the job.

"From what I know of Peter serving with him in the Legislature, I think he'd be a good calming influence and that's what I think the turnpike needs right now," he says.

Board members said the choice of Peter Mills was made in consultation with the governor's office. Mills says talks began with the deputy commissioner of transportation and board members in the last two weeks.

Mills says that among his priorities are making the Turnpike Authority more accessible to the Legislature through tools like the website. He also wants to use the turnpike and its plazas to promote tourism. "I think we need to make this into a red-carpet reception for people coming into the state of Maine. That means as soon as practically possible, creating a high-speed tolling facility at the south end of the pike," he says.

Mills, who's 67, says now that he's not in the Legislature and has wound down his law practice, he can commit to the job--though for how long he isn't sure. "I'm not going to be here for 23 years the way my predecessor was--I'd be 90," he says. "So it's not a long-term expectation on my part, but I'd like to be here for as long as the job requires."

Mills' salary has not been negotiated yet, but he says it will be "appropriately modest" and lower than Violette's salary of $128,400. Violette got about $29,000 worth in benefits, but Mills says he won't ask for benefits.



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