AUGUSTA – The Maine Turnpike Authority paid for limousine services, in-room movies and alcoholic beverages as part of its travel and meals budgets from 2005 to 2009, a report released Friday shows.
The report by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability questioned several areas of expenditures, including travel and meals, lobbying, sponsorships and donations, employee recognition programs, and tourism giveaways such as “lighthouse-shaped cookie cutters.”
At the request of Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, the state’s watchdog office studied many aspects of the authority, including its relationship to the state Department of Transportation, whether its debt level is appropriate, and how it chooses its contractors.
Overall, the report described it as an effective quasi-state agency that borrows money responsibly and has contributed money to Maine’s transportation needs. The authority, created in 1941, is supported by toll money.
The turnpike authority cooperated with the program evaluation office and has recommended several changes based on the findings. Some changes have already been made and others will be made later this year, according to the report.
The turnpike authority discontinued lavish spending on travel and meals several years ago, said Scott Tompkins, its public relations manager.
“Some of the things that were discussed today that raised eyebrows are practices that are no longer in place,” he said. “The trend has been toward fiscal accountability and transparency.”
For example, the report cites more than $157,000 in gift certificate purchases from various hotel chains and restaurants in 2005 and 2006. Tompkins said the authority, which once bought the gift certificates and donated them to a “variety of organizations,” has stopped that practice.
Also, some of the more expensive travel and meal items were from a three-year period when Executive Director Paul Violette held leadership roles in the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.
“That required a lot of national and international travel to conferences where they stay in nicer hotels,” Tompkins said.
The report does not indicate which employees traveled or how much each charged for expenses.
Beth Ashcroft, director of the watchdog office, told members of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee on Friday that she tried to give the authority some leeway because it is not a state agency. It is structured more like a regulated private company such as Central Maine Power, she said.
But she wanted to make lawmakers aware of several items that were charged to turnpike authority credit cards, including limousine services, stays at “expensive hotels,” in-room movies, airline club dues and alcoholic beverages. The report did not indicate how many employees had turnpike authority credit cards.
The report notes that after spending $411,847 on travel and meals in 2005, the authority dramatically reduced spending in that category. 2009, it spent $132,441 on travel and meals.
“MTA management explained that these changes in behavior were partly the result of negative public reaction to some expenses in 2006 and 2007 that made the authority more aware of public expectations for its activities,” the report states.
Over the five-year period, travel and meal expenses totaled $1.1 million.
Turnpike Authority Chairman Gerard P. Conley Sr., a former president of the Maine Senate, told the committee that travel expenses have been slashed in recent years.
“I’d like to emphasize that a major component of this group — travel and subsistence expenses — decreased by 68 percent over the five-year review period and continues to decline to this day,” he said.
Ashcroft also questioned $257,780 that the authority spent over the five-year period on employee recognition efforts. Those programs included length-of-service awards and gifts, annual employee banquets, and gift certificates for turkeys at Thanksgiving.
Sponsorships and donations over the period totaled $454,238, including more than $100,000 given to the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. Each year, the turnpike authority paid $10,000 in chamber dues, and gave additional money for sponsorships or donations.
Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, said he objected to the authority giving money to the chamber. “I think in these tough financial times, the taxpayers are going to be frustrated,” he said.
Ashcroft also questioned why the authority gave money to groups that appeared to be outside the scope of the transportation sector. The authority donated $2,500 to the Maine Irish Heritage Center and $1,000 to the Nature Conservancy of Maine, the report shows.
Also from 2005 to 2009, it gave $10,000 to the Maine Center for Economic Policy, $10,000 to the Maine Restaurant Association and $27,000 to the Maine Preservation Foundation.
Tompkins said some of the donations help the authority stay connected to community groups.
“Part of what we see our responsibility to do is be a good corporate citizen,” he said. “Part of being a good corporate citizen is being involved on boards, being involved in events with these groups, and it does help us get a better sense of the issues faced by the people in the corridor that we serve.”
The Maine Turnpike Authority operates and maintains the 109-mile toll highway from Kittery to Augusta.
Ashcroft questioned why the authority spent $577,237 for lobbying while it had its own government relations staff. Tompkins said he didn’t know who was being lobbied.
The report also questioned the authority’s “long-term and exclusive” relationship with its engineering services contractor, HNTB. Ashcroft encouraged more competitive bidding in that area and in contracts for management services.
Also, she recommended that the authority be required to give more detailed information to the Legislature, because 40 percent of its operating expenses are not being reported to the Transportation Committee.
She advised the authority to set criteria for sponsorships and donations, and said all employees should be clear about the types of travel and meal expenses that are appropriate.
After Friday’s meeting, Hill said she requested the review because her attempts to pass legislation to require more disclosure and transparency from the authority had failed. A public hearing on the report is set for Feb. 11.
“I’d love the committee to probe more into the expenses,” she said.
MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan M. Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: