YORK, Maine — It started as rumor through the town three years ago — talk that the Maine Turnpike Authority was going to replace the 39-year-old toll plaza that was slowly sinking into the earth.
More details began to come out – 17 new sites were under consideration, from the bridge over the Piscataqua River up to Wells. Then the sites were narrowed down to four, all in York. All envisioned some degree of land-taking – including homes, in some cases — through eminent domain.
“That’s what created the explosion,” recalled Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, who was a freshman representative at the time.
It was an explosion that galvanized town residents, steeled a politician, prompted a legislative investigation and shook a political powerhouse. As the shock waves from that explosion continue to expand, the strongest reverberations are felt today as the state’s top attorney looks into former Maine Turnpike Authority head Paul Violette, who resigned amidst disclosures that he spent nearly $200,000 in agency funds on gift cards for upscale hotels and restaurants with scant record-keeping.
But it all started small, as such things often do, and may have been avoided had the bureaucracy simply been easier to work with.
“They were arrogant, they just thought they were going to plow through,” said David Linney, a York resident. “I’ll bet that our good friend who is in forced retirement wishes he had never suggested those four sites.”
Friction in York
As the MTA started figuring out what to do to replace the York tolls, residents started to organize against the plan. The selectmen voted unanimously to oppose it. In a nonbinding referendum in spring of 2008, 91 percent of voters opposed the plan.
“The Maine Turnpike Authority had to sit up and pay attention,” said Hill.
Soon afterward, MTA officials held a public meeting in York to discuss the plan. Estimates vary as to attendance; Hill said 800 to 900 residents showed up, others had the number at 500 to 650. There’s agreement that the meeting lasted hours, starting at 7 p.m. and ending after midnight.
Hill said that with few exceptions, the residents were “highly respectful,” but also pressed the officials on their answers and plans, questioning assumptions and the need for a new plaza, for the expense and for the taking of land and homes.
“The MTA did not, in my opinion, handle it well,” said Hill. “They were snippy, sarcastic, rude.”
Residents who faced the potential taking of land agreed.
“They treated us completely like dirt,” said Randy Small, whose family has owned land in the area since long before the turnpike was built.
The officials had no interest in working with residents, suggested Kari Prichard, who lives on her family farmland.
“They just wanted to bulldoze their way through our lives,” she said.
As the community was organizing, seeking counterstudies to fight the turnpike’s plan, Hill was trying to work through political channels, reaching out to Violette. She was surprised at his lack of response – unusual disregard for a sitting Legislature by an agency head , she said.
“I never had a return call – never,” she said.
A few days after the meeting in York, she spoke with a turnpike lobbyist and told him how “disappointed” she was in the MTA’s performance. The lobbyist told her that as a quasi-municipal organization, the MTA hadn’t been required to even hold the meeting, and advised her not to push too hard against the turnpike.
Hill said she retorted that the MTA was a public entity, accountable to the Legislature and public. The lobbyist suggested the MTA was more of a “public corporation,” Hill recalled.
The exchange angered her, and she went into the Maine State Law and Legislative Reference Library at the State House to dig up the statutes that had created the MTA years before.
As people in York went after the toll plan on its environmental and financial merits, Hill began looking at the MTA through a legislative lens, what she thought of as the powerful organization’s “soft underbelly.”
The organized residents of York were and remain strongly opposed to a new full-service plaza on the basis of location and costs, including estimates in the $60 million range. But as Hill dug into the turnpike’s operations and lack of oversight, she became more concerned with how the toll highway hierarchy operated, and less opposed to the overall need for a new toll.
In its creating legislation, she found an organization that was exempt from many freedom of access requirements, that had no requirements for construction review, that enjoyed full powers of eminent domain. She described an agency that had largely convinced state leaders to leave it alone, or risk jeopardizing its excellent bond rating. And the prevailing wisdom, said Hill, was that the turnpike was operating smoothly and the roads were the best in the state, so the Legislature should not mess around with it. It was a refrain the turnpike and its powerful lobbying organization reinforced at every chance.
As she dug, legislators on both side of the political aisle warned her off, she said, suggesting it would be dangerous to go after the turnpike.
“What will they do, not let me go through a toll booth?” said Hill.
In 2009, she put in bills calling for more review, more oversight, opening the MTA to public access laws, putting in requirements for public hearings. She twisted arms to get co-sponsors. The Transportation Committee heard the bills, the room packed with MTA officials and lobbyists, arguing against her points in the public hearing.
The bills got voted down.
Hill kept digging, working with the state auditor. She found that the legislation creating the Turnpike Authority required that its annual surplus revenues be returned to the state’s general fund. That had stopped years earlier, and she was told by turnpike officials that those revenues were instead used to pay off a $40 million bond the MTA had secured on behalf of the state, in a deal made several administrations ago.
But, as was the case in much of what Hill unearthed, there was scant or no documentation of these deals; most appeared to have been made verbally.
What started as constituent work had been fueled by her anger at being told to back off. Now, she was finding a disturbing lack of accountability, and she was driven by a pervasive feeling that things weren’t right at the MTA.
In early 2010, Hill decided to take a different tack. Hill was the House co-chair of the relatively obscure Government Oversight Committee. She asked her committee members to have the Office of Program Evaluation & Government Accountability look into the MTA. The committee had oversight over OPEGA, which is in a way the Legislature’s investigative office, similar to Congress and the Government Accountability Office.
With a list of about two dozen projects for the small office to take on, OPEGA asked the committee to prioritize potential investigations. The MTA investigation came out at the top.
Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, was on the committee at the time, and is still a member today. The issues in York were the catalyst for the investigation, but many legislators were anxious to take a closer look at the MTA, he said.
“Many of us knew there were issues there for a long time; many of us were very uncomfortable with the amount of political clout they had,” said Trahan.
In late April 2010, OPEGA gave a brief synopsis of what it was finding, and asked the committee members if they wanted the investigation to proceed. MTA officials filled half the room, and had been lobbying to keep the investigation from going forward, said Hill.
“They were really trying to have this end on April 29,” recalled Hill.
Sen. Dennis Damon, who was then co-chair of the Transportation Committee, spoke to the oversight committee. He said his committee had set up a subcommittee to look at the MTA’s budget and would exert greater control over the MTA, Hill said. She urged her members to continue the investigation.
They voted to do so.
The report was supposed to come out in October, but an OPEGA notice sent in September said the investigation was getting more complicated, and would be delayed.
That fall, Hill was elected to serve as a state senator. She wasn’t put back on the oversight committee, instead getting a post on the time-consuming Appropriations Committee.
In January 2011, the OPEGA report was released. Hill sat in her old committee room for the presentation, a room unusually packed with MTA officials, legislators and reporters. For 20 minutes, she had a sinking feeling that all her suspicions about the MTA had been unfounded, that the investigation found nothing amiss. The OPEGA report was nothing spectacular, was boring, even. A reporter sitting next to Hill left to phone her editors, to advise them there was no bombshell, no story.
Then, about 20 minutes into the presentation, the OPEGA official started to detail the lavish, unchecked spending at the MTA, the unregulated use of gift cards.
“I had two very clear thoughts. One was: ‘Thank God I was validated.’ The second was a great sense of relief that others would now understand and believe this, and the right authorities would take over,” she said.
Violette resigned in March of this year. Later, in a hearing, the Government Oversight Committee co-chair Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, questioned the former MTA head about evidence showing that Violette redeemed cards for himself for family Christmas-week getaways at the Lucerne Inn in central Maine, for $1,500 worth of spa services and for a $1,000 down payment toward a $1,500 tuxedo. He questioned Violette about how the cards were used at expensive hotels in France, Italy, the Czech Republic, Canada and Bermuda, as well as other places.
Violette, on the advice of his attorney, declined to testify. The committee voted without dissent to refer the matter to the Attorney General’s Office for further investigation.
Former Sen. Peter Mills, a Republican from Skowhegan, was tapped to come in as interim executive director and to clean house. Mills has worked with the Oversight Committee and the Transportation Committee to make substantive legislative changes at the MTA. On Tuesday, the Transportation Committee will hold a public hearing on proposals to make changes in turnpike administration.
Mills said he’s focusing on making the MTA more accountable for its actions, and open to the public.
“As far as I’m concerned, we live in fish bowl,” he said. “I have found the current staff to be very willing to adopt a far more transparent and candid relationship to the Legislature and to the public.”
While he was a senator, he wasn’t aware of Hill’s ongoing fight with the MTA, said Mills. Asked about her view of how top officials acted during meetings and in the State House, he indicates that may have been the case, but that the authority is changing.
“There was an atmosphere of defensiveness, and insularity,” said Mills. “I suspect it was the product of leadership style of a single individual.”
Hill said she continues to look into the question of surplus revenue, and has a bill in that would more strongly define what is “operating revenue” at the MTA.
As for the York toll plaza?
“We’ve decided to take a completely fresh look at the toll,” said Mills. “There’s no immediate hurry.”