EDITORIALS

EDITORIAL: Where was Maine Turnpike Authority oversight?

Posted July 20, 2011, at 6:18 p.m.
Last modified July 22, 2011, at 2:01 p.m.
Paul Violette, former executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority.
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Paul Violette, former executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority.

The Maine Turnpike Authority is smart to pursue legal means to recoup the money its former director allegedly misused. What has yet to be revealed, however, is how much the MTA board knew about Paul Violette’s activity.

As part of its lawsuit, the MTA seeks $161,000 in overpayment to Violette for sick days and vacations he claimed he didn’t take during his 23 years with the authority.

This, and his apparent misuse of more than $450,000 in MTA funds, begs the question of why the board apparently had so little oversight of Mr. Violette.

In a complaint filed by the MTA in Cumberland County Superior Court on Tuesday, Mr. Violette’s failings were detailed. “As Executive Director, Defendant occupied a position of trust in the management and oversight of the Authority’s public business,” the document says. “Defendant owed a duty to the Board, to the Authority and to the public at large to discharge faithfully the responsibilities entrusted to him …”

The same could be said of the board. A board that allowed its executive director to spend more than $186,000 on gift cards — often to posh hotels and restaurants — and didn’t ensure that his vacation and sick time were monitored clearly wasn’t fulfilling its duty to the public.

An exhibit to the complaint details gift card purchases since 2003, when the inappropriate expenditures were said to begin. The list is a result of forensic audit ordered by MTA leaders after the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and and Government Accountability issued a report citing questionable expenditures at the agency.

On one day — Sept. 15,2004 — Mr. Violette purchased more than $35,000 worth of gift cards to Hyatt hotels, according to the complaint. Another $10,000 was spent on Hyatt gift cards on Dec. 9, 2005; $15,000 worth of Fairmont hotel gift cards were purchased a few days later. On March 25, 2005, nearly $27,000 was spent on gifts cards for Relais & Chateaux, which its website describes as an “association of the world’s finest hoteliers, chefs and restaurateurs that has set the standard for excellence in hospitality.”

Another exhibit lists the gift cards that could be shown to be given to charitable groups, the reason Mr. Violette said he bought them. The Government Oversight Committee could only track records for $26,550 worth of donated cards, including $4,000 worth of Fairmont cards and $4,800 worth of Hyatt cards, all of which were donated to Maine Preservation.

More than $73,000 in “fraudulent charges” are detailed in a third exhibit. According to the document, $15,000 in Fairmont gift cards were redeemed at the Frontenac Hotel in Quebec City during Winter Carnival in 2006. On Oct. 5, another $8,700 worth of gift cards were used there.

Mr. Violette often traveled to International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike meetings around the world. During these trips, which the board approved, Relais and Chateaux gift cards were used in France and Spain and Hyatt cards in Bermuda. Mr. Violette sometimes traveled to foreign countries days before the meetings, the document says, likely adding to hotel and restaurant bills.

According to the exhibit, Mr. Violette also used the gift cards and MTA credit cards during personal trips. In some instances he pledged to reimburse the authority, but the exhibit says this had yet to happen.

Given the large sums of money spent on these trips, Mr. Violette likely didn’t always travel alone. Did board members go with him? Members of the Legislature? Lobbyists?

A follow-up question must be who knew about these junkets and kept quiet. Why?

The answers to such questions could show that the alleged malfeasance is more widespread than 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 rather than becoming part of the Department of Transportation.

Lawmakers and investigators pursuing this case, must get answers to these questions and dig deeper into who beyond Mr. Violette knows about and perhaps was part of this misbehavior.

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