Maine law panel discusses what went wrong in turnpike scandal, how future boards can prevent similar trouble

Former Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court Daniel Wathen describes on Wednesday afternoon his current role as chairman of the Maine Turnpike Authority, whose executive director was found guilty of stealing or misappropriating $400,000 in authority funds.
Former Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court Daniel Wathen describes on Wednesday afternoon his current role as chairman of the Maine Turnpike Authority, whose executive director was found guilty of stealing or misappropriating $400,000 in authority funds.
Posted April 24, 2013, at 6 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Some of Maine’s top legal minds on Wednesday afternoon said it’s important that boards overseeing state agencies are diversely populated and shouldn’t be constructed based on political cronyism.

Sticking to those goals would better provide checks and balances for agency leaders and prevent scandals like the case of former Maine Turnpike Authority Executive Director Paul Violette, they said.

Panelists at the fifth annual Governance & Ethics Symposium held by the University of Maine School of Law talked at length about the case of Violette, who was convicted of stealing or misappropriating nearly $400,000 in agency funds by taking lavish trips and buying himself expensive gifts, like wine and tuxedos.

Former Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court Daniel Wathen, who was named chairman of the turnpike authority in part to help rebuild the agency’s credibility after the Violette episode, sat on the panel, as did William Schneider, who served as the state’s attorney general when the former director’s activity was exposed.

Current Attorney General Janet Mills, who served on the state Legislature when Violette was investigated, and Jennifer Miller, executive vice president of Sappi Fine Papers of America, also sat on the panel.

Dan Boxer, who moderated the discussion alongside Tom Dunne, asked the panelists to react to the assumption that the boards overseeing quasi-state agencies like the turnpike authority are stocked with political cronies and are too close to the hired directors they’re supposed to oversee.

“You see a lot of ex-legislators, when they’re termed out or they lose, they get big jobs, which are bigger than they ought to get,” Boxer, an adjunct professor at the law school and former partner at Portland firm Pierce Atwood, said. “If these were [applying for jobs at] S.D. Warren, their resumes would not get past the first screen. What are their qualifications to run a major state agency?”

Violette, he noted, was a former Democratic state senator. Boxer also pointed to the recent upheaval in the Maine Housing Authority, during which Republican Gov. Paul LePage placed a slate of like-minded appointees to the board and influenced the resignation of former director Dale McCormick, herself a former Democratic state lawmaker appointed by fellow party member Gov. John Baldacci.

Boxer had to qualify his question, “present company excluded,” because Schneider and Mills were both state legislators before being named attorney general.

Mills said she feels the practice of appointing political cronies to top government posts is less frequent than many people assume, and noted that of LePage’s current commissioners, Agriculture Commissioner Walt Whitcomb is the only former legislator, and he’s also qualified for the post as a lifelong farmer.

“In the state government, we change our CEOs every four years, whether we need to or not,” agreed Wathen. “So if there’s any stability, it needs to come from the middle management level, and I don’t see a lot of former legislators in those ranks.”

Critically, Miller said, the boards overseeing those agencies must be appointed with an eye toward promoting diversity of member backgrounds and expertise, and suggested that disagreement among board members is healthy. She said organizations that discourage dissenting opinions or debate become ripe for unethical behavior to flourish, as “bad apple” administrators can curry favor with a few influential board members and get away with poor behavior, as Violette is alleged to have done.

“I think what’s very important is [having] very independent boards with very clear expectations of what that independence means,” she said. “The Wall Street Journal is littered with cases of boards who weren’t independent and weren’t asking questions.”

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