Financial watchdog questions spending of turnpike agency

Posted Jan. 28, 2011, at 9:54 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A government watchdog agency has recommended a lengthy list of changes at the Maine Turnpike Authority after a review that raised concerns about the way the quasi-government agency tracks spending, awards contracts and keeps the public informed.

Overall, the review by the Maine Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability gave the MTA good marks for long-term planning as well as decision-making when it comes to the tolls that finance much of the turnpike’s operation and maintenance.

But the review found a number of areas that needed improvement. For instance, the turnpike awarded more no-bid contracts than necessary and failed to adequately document staff spending for meals and travel, even allowing MTA credit cards to be charged for alcohol, limousines and pricey hotel rooms — all in violation of authority rules.

Turnpike officials said they have already made changes or are in the process of addressing the recommendations.

“I do believe they are taking what we have had to say here in this review very seriously,” Beth Ashcroft, director of OPEGA, told members of the Government Oversight Committee on Friday.

Established in 1941, the Maine Turnpike Authority is an independent agency that provides governmental services by operating the turnpike between Kittery and Augusta. The MTA does not receive state funding, but instead is financed through tolls and revenue bonds.

While the Legislature oversees the MTA’s annual spending plan, the authority’s quasi-governmental status makes it unique and creates challenges. The OPEGA report notes that the authority has been slow to implement changes in policies and practices that the public has come to expect with regard to fiscal restraint, transparency and accountability.

“MTA also has yet to fully establish strong policies and practices to assure economic purchasing and reduce risk of inappropriate, unnecessary or excessive expenditures,” the report reads.

In the area of transparency, OPEGA found that the authority’s annual budget report to the Legislature did not include all of the operating expenses, as required.

Additionally, between 2005 and 2009, the authority spent more than $450,000 on “sponsorships and donations” to various organizations but lacked any formal policy for which organizations should receive money.

Of that total, more than $150,000 was spent on gift certificates “from various hotel chains and restaurants” that were donated to organizations; the authority failed, however, to keep records on those donations, according to OPEGA.

And some of the recipients were noncharitable organizations in which top MTA officials serve on boards or councils.

For example, the Maine Better Transportation Authority — a trade group that advocates and lobbies for funding for roads and bridges — received more than $400,000 in dues, rent, donations and sponsorships during that time.

“Given the expense activity OPEGA observed, we believe there is a risk of MTA resources being used to support efforts not directly tied to its mission,” the report reads. “There is also risk that perceived, or actual, personal benefit will accrue to members of MTA management from these sponsorships and donations.”

That prompted a rebuke from Sen. David Trahan, a Waldoboro Republican who serves on the Government Oversight Committee, who called it “troublesome” that the authority would give to noncharitable organizations with potential political connections.

“I don’t think you folks should be giving money to any association like this,” Trahan said.

MTA spokesman Scott Tompkins said the authority no longer donates gift certificates. But he said the authority regards donations or sponsorships as part of being a “good corporate citizen.”

The authority’s past spending for meals and travel also caught the reviewers’ eyes.

OPEGA officials said expenses paid out for meals and travel frequently lacked the necessary documentation.

Additionally, when documentation was available, auditors found that some turnpike employees violated the authority’s own rules by charging MTA credit cards for alcohol, pricey hotel rooms, in-room movies and even private limousine services.

Tompkins of the turnpike authority attributed some of the spending at higher-end hotels and restaurants to the period when the turnpike’s executive director, Paul Violette, served as president of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.

That position required Violette to travel to national and international conferences and events, he said. Since then, travel and meals expenses have declined significantly — by 68 percent — and the authority has put in place better bookkeeping, Tompkins and other authority officials said Friday.

Gerald Conley, chairman of the MTA, told committee members that the review was “an enlightening experience” that highlighted both positive practices at the authority and areas that need improvement.

“As a result, several MTA practices will be formalized and, where needed, new policies and procedures will be created, all with an eye toward increased transparency and accountability,” Conley said.

Ashcroft credited the authority for going beyond her agency’s recommendations in numerous cases. At the end of the meeting, Trahan also gave the authority credit for addressing many of the concerns raised by the report.

“With your responses, it certainly tempers my frustration,” he said.

A public hearing on the report is scheduled for Feb. 11.

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