Who Traveled on the MTA Dime?

Posted April 29, 2011, at 7:39 p.m.
Last modified May 09, 2011, at 11:45 a.m.

The revelation that the former head of the Maine Turnpike Authority apparently spent lavishly has outraged lawmakers and the public, as it should. The scope of any investigation must get much broader, however. The main question to be answered is: Who traveled on the MTA’s dime?

The scale of the expenditures is much too large to have been made by just one person. So who, in addition to the authority’s former director, Paul Violette, spent the money?

The answers to such questions could show that the alleged malfeasance is more widespread that it it currently looks. If this is the case, the Maine Turnpike Authority will have a hard time explaining why it should be allowed to continue to operate with minimal government oversight and why it should not become part of the Department of Transportation.

At a hearing before the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee earlier this month, Mr. Violette, who resigned in February, repeatedly declined to answer questions, on the advice of his attorney.

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According to a report by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, the former head of the Maine Turnpike Authority bought nearly $200,000 worth of gift cards, which he had said were for fundraisers for charitable and civic groups. OPEGA could trace only $15,000 worth of cards, which were purchased in 2005 and 2006, actually going to such groups.

“Several vendors provided records indicating that gift certificates, or other MTA funds, had been used by Paul Violette to procure items or services that do not appear to be business-related,” Beth Ashcroft, the head of OPEGA, told lawmakers at the hearing earlier this month.

OPEGA found that some of the cards were used at expensive hotels in France, Italy, the Czech Republic, Canada and Bermuda. Who made these trips? If it was Mr. Violette, he likely didn’t travel by himself. Whom did he take with him? Members of the MTA’s board of trustees? Lawmakers? Lobbyists?

A follow-up question is who knew about these expenditures but didn’t speak up. Why?

The Government Oversight Committee voted to refer the matter to the attorney general for further investigation.

Ironically, the investigation into the turnpike authority was requested, in part, because residents of southern Maine, where the authority proposed to build a $34 million new toll plaza, felt that their questions were going unanswered and that they were treated rudely and arrogantly by MTA officials.

Often it is these little missteps — treating local residents dismissively, for example — that lead to the unearthing of major misdeeds.

The turnpike case also highlights the importance of OPEGA, an office that Republican Sen. David Trahan worked tirelessly to create and that Democrats tried to undermine, through lack of funding and other means.

If any questions remain as to the value of an entity that can dig into government operations — often to point out waste and redundancy and, less frequently, to find misdeeds — the MTA case should erase them.

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