Violette resigns as turnpike chief amid questions

Posted March 07, 2011, at 10:45 a.m.
Last modified March 08, 2011, at 3:50 p.m.
Paul Violette is shown in May 2009 when he was executive directory of the Maine Turnpike Authority. Violette resigned on Monday, March 7, 2011, amid questions and growing criticism about the turnpike finances and his leadership.
Courtesy of Maine Turnpike Authority | AP
Paul Violette is shown in May 2009 when he was executive directory of the Maine Turnpike Authority. Violette resigned on Monday, March 7, 2011, amid questions and growing criticism about the turnpike finances and his leadership.
Traffic approaches Maine Turnpike toll booths, Friday, Feb. 18, 2011, in Gardiner, Maine. The turnpike authority's director has resigned amid questions about the agency's spending.
AP | AP
Traffic approaches Maine Turnpike toll booths, Friday, Feb. 18, 2011, in Gardiner, Maine. The turnpike authority's director has resigned amid questions about the agency's spending.

Correction: In a March 7 story about the resignation of Maine Turnpike Authority Executive Director Paul Violette, The Associated Press, relying on information from the authority, misidentified some of the groups that received hotel and restaurant gift certificates from Violette from 2005-2007. Authority spokesman Scott Tompkins on Tuesday provided a letter written by Violette in December stating that the groups that got gift certificates included the Maine Better Transportation Association; Maine Preservation; Friends of Scarborough Marsh; Family Crisis Center; Biddeford Chamber of Commerce; Ducks Unlimited; Mercy Hospital; Saco Chamber of Commerce; and the Salvation Army, but not the Maine Motor Transport Association; the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association; The Nature Conservancy; and Maine Audubon.

PORTLAND, Maine  — The longtime executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority resigned Monday amid questions and growing criticism about turnpike finances and his leadership.

In a letter to the Maine Turnpike Authority board, Paul Violette wrote that he has become a central issue for many legislators in the wake of a report issued by the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability questioning some of his agency’s contracting practices and expenditure controls. The authority is a quasi-state agency that oversees the 109-mile Maine Turnpike, which runs from Kittery to Augusta.

In particular, Violette has come under fire for distributing $157,493 worth of gift certificates for high-end restaurants and hotels between 2005 and 2007 to organizations affiliated with the turnpike. Violette has not been able to document who received the cards.

In his letter of resignation, which was accepted unanimously by the seven-member board, Violette said the accountability office report recognized several positive aspects about the agency.

“However, I believe my continued leadership has become a distraction, causing those positives to be obscured and implementation of those recommendations to be delayed,” Violette wrote. “It is my hope that my resignation and the appointment of an able replacement will allow the focus to return to ways in which the Maine Turnpike Authority may continue to improve.”

Tarren Bragdon, chief executive officer of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, said the new Republican-controlled Legislature has been demanding accountability from Violette and the Turnpike Authority, something he said legislators and governors failed to do in the past.

The authority has been involved in “egregious” practices in the past decade, including giving “lavish pay raises” to administrators and doling out gift cards to luxury hotels and fine restaurants, he said.

“I think this is a first good step toward making the Maine Turnpike Authority transparent and accountable. It’s long overdue,” Bragdon said.

Violette, 55, became executive director of the Turnpike Authority in January 1988. The agency has had only four directors since it was formed in 1941.

Violette was a state senator from Van Buren in the early to mid-1980s and served as Senate majority leader in the 112th Legislature, 1985-86.

Under his watch, annual turnpike traffic grew from about 35 million to more than 60 million vehicles, and the highway was widened from four lanes to six from York to Portland.

But the agency has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months. Some legislators have proposed abolishing the Turnpike Authority or diverting more control of the toll road to the Legislature.

The OPEGA report, which was released to the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee in January, questioned the authority’s relationship with an engineering firm, how it manages its service contracts, how it calculates its operating budget and its policies on travel and meal expenses. But what got many legislators’ attention was Violette’s distribution of the gift certificates that the turnpike authority says were donated to organizations.

The gift certificates were good at high-end Portland-area restaurants including Back Bay Grill, Street & Co., Fore Street, Royal River Grillhouse, Bandol, Saltwater Grille and David’s. Others were good at lodging establishments including the Black Point Inn in Scarborough and the Portland Harbor Hotel, as well as chains such as Marriott and Fairmont Hotels. Violette gave out $35,000 of certificates from Relais & Chateaux, a Paris-based company with luxury hotels and restaurants worldwide.

Violette has said he distributed the certificates to organizations affiliated with the turnpike authority, but hasn’t been able to give a precise accounting. Those organizations include local chambers of commerce, trade groups such as the Maine Motor Transport Association and the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, and nonprofit groups including The Nature Conservancy and Maine Audubon, said turnpike spokesman Scott Tompkins.

The Government Oversight Committee is gathering information from the restaurants and hotels to pin down who exactly used the gift certificates, said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, co-chairman of the committee. With unanswered questions about agency expenditures, Violette has become a “lightning rod” for criticism, he said.

“We think we have a responsibility to get to the bottom of this,” Katz said. “These are public funds.”

Violette did not appear at the authority’s board meeting Monday and could not be reached for comment. But Tompkins said questions surrounding the gift certificates were probably the tipping point that forced Violette’s resignation.

“It’s become the singular focus of several legislators and others,” Tompkins said.

The Maine Turnpike Authority board will appoint an interim executive director to fill Violette’s term, which expires in September, and begin a search for a permanent replacement, Tompkins said.

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