The Maine Public Broadcasting Network
Listen Live
Classical 24
Search
Maine Turnpike Authority Head Resigns Amid Financial Questions
03/07/2011   Reported By: Josie Huang

The long-time executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority resigned today amid accusations of extravagant spending habits at the quasi-public agency. Paul Violette and the Turnpike Authority came under widespread public scrutiny after the Legislature's Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, or OPEGA, released a report in January that questioned spending policies at the agency.

Related Media
Maine Turnpike Authority Head Resigns Amid Financi Listen
 Duration:
4:22

Paul E. Violette

The long-time executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority resigned today amid accusations of extravagant spending habits at the quasi-public agency. Paul Violette (left) and the Turnpike Authority came under widespread public scrutiny after the Legislature's Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, or OPEGA, released a report in January that questioned spending policies at the agency.

Most notably, Violette distributed $157,000 in gift certificates for luxury hotels and fine restaurants to different organizations between 2005 and 2007, but kept no record of these transactions. In his letter of resignation, Violette says "I believe that my continued leadership role has become a distraction."

"He felt that after serving for 24 years that he's burnt out and he has now lost all credibility with the legislative leadership," says Gerard Conley, Sr., the chair of the Turnpike Authority's board, which voted unanimously--if reluctantly he says--to accept Violette's resignation.

Conley says the board didn't tell Violette to step down--that, in fact, some members asked him to hold off. But Violette, Conley says, was feeling the pressure from Republicans. "There are people who apparently don't like Mr. Violette, and they'll birddog him, and would continue if he stayed."

Conley says he was hopeful that the agency would be able to move past the controversy under the guidance of the board and an interim executive director.

But an investigation of the actions of the Turnpike Authority continues. State Senator Roger Katz is the Augusta Republican co-chairing a legislative government oversight committee. He says that the committee is developing a complete list of who got what by contacting hotel chains and restaurants where the gift cards may have been used. "We've got an obligation to try to get to the bottom of this, even in light of the director's resignation."

Organizations that received the certificates range from the Maine Preservation to the Maine Better Transportation Association. The OPEGA report suggests the gift certificates could create the perception that Authority officials are benefitting from donations.

Others want the Turnpike Authority to undergo the same level of review as state agencies. The Turnpike Authority provides public services but is independently financed through tolls and revenue bonds.

"Mr. Violette's resignation is just the first step," says Tarren Bragdon of the Maine Heritage Policy Center. The conservative advocacy group has been critical of spending at the Turnpike Authority, especially in the area of pay raises. The center says salaries there grew by 72 percent in a dozen years, on the backs of toll payers.

"I think that the Maine Turnpike Authority needs a comprehensive review and probably needs to clean house even further," Bragdon says.

Republicans have suggested moving oversight of the turnpike to the Maine Department of Transportation. Another idea is to lease the turnpike to a private company. But some legislators say they aren't interested in changing the structure of the authority.

"This is a well-run organization that takes care of 100 miles of roads, and it's been said by many it's the best 100 miles that we have in the state," says state Rep. George Hogan. Hogan is a Democrat from Old Orchard Beach who sits on the Legislature's Transportation Committee, which is charged with oversight of the Turnpike Authority's operating budget. He says he too questioned the spending on gift cards.

But he says that's not reason for the state to exert more control over the agency. "It's viewed as a pot of gold by at least some in the Legislature. And they'd like to get their hands on it, I'm sure," Hogan says.

The OPEGA report stated that outside of some expenditures like the gift cards, the Turnpike Authority acts like "a regulated private entity that is financially sound, values quality, desires to stay current," among other things. The report also noted that the Turnpike Authority's bond ratings compare favorably with those in other states.

The agency says that it's working to adopt OPEGA recommendations, such as reducing its reliance on the engineering company HNTB, which both plans projects and builds them.

Violette is only the fourth executive director in the Turnpike Authority's 70-year history. Turnpike spokesman Scott Tompkins says during his tenure, Violette oversaw major milestones. "He was the first to implement electronic tolling in New England; he was in charge of developing and overseeing the widening and modernization of the turnpike which is a 5-year, $135 million project," Tompkins says.

Deputy Executive Director Neil Libby will take the helm of the 550-employee agency until Violette's replacement is hired.



ReturnReturn!



Become a Fan of the NEW MPBNNews Facebook page. Get news, updates and unique content to share and discuss:

Recommended by our audience on Facebook:
Copyright © 2014 Maine Public Broadcasting Network. All rights reserved.