AUGUSTA – The legislative panel investigating the Maine Turnpike Authority intends to subpoena the vendors that sold the authority $157,000 worth of gift cards, which the authority donated to various organizations without documenting.

The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee also decided Friday to tell the authority’s former executive director, Paul Violette, other senior staff members and board members who have knowledge of the gift cards to be prepared to testify under oath on April 15.

Those people have until March 23 to notify the committee whether they will testify. If they decline, the committee may issue subpoenas to compel them to appear.

The gift cards, mostly in denominations of $100, were redeemable at several luxury hotels. The committee did not identify the vendors.

According to a Dec. 30 letter from Violette to the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, the groups that received the cards include Maine Preservation, Mercy Hospital, the Maine Better Transportation Association, the Biddeford Chamber of Commerce, Ducks Unlimited, the Family Crisis Center, the Salvation Army and the Saco Chamber of Commerce.

At least one of the organizations has cast doubt on Violette’s recollection. Lois Reckitt, executive director of the Family Crisis Shelter, has said that Violette is a former member of the shelter’s board but she has no record or recollection of receiving any gift cards.

Violette, who resigned Monday after 23 years as head of the quasi-state agency, said in the letter that the gift cards were used to sponsor a wide range of civic organizations that often solicit donations from businesses.

In addition to the gift cards, the authority donated $290,000 in cash to organizations and trade groups such as the Maine Restaurant Association and the Maine Irish Heritage Center.

The spending, which occurred from 2005 to 2009, was identified in a review of the authority by the program evaluation office, which issued a report in January.

In response to the report, the Government Oversight Committee is considering drafting legislation to prohibit the authority, and other state agencies, from hiring lobbyists.

There is no state law now prohibiting such lobbying, but many agencies have the impression that it is prohibited, Assistant Attorney General Phyllis Gardiner told the committee Friday.

Except in rare cases, she said, agencies have used their own staffs to lobby lawmakers.

Addressing the legality of donating money to outside groups, the “public use doctrine” limits spending by state agencies to donations that serve a public purpose, she said.

Gardiner said she doesn’t have enough information about the turnpike authority’s intentions to determine whether its donations had a public purpose.

The committee also is considering legislation to require the authority to give the Legislature access to all of its budget data, including its “reserve maintenance account,” essentially a cash account that has been shielded from legislative scrutiny, including spending on travel and donations.

The committee also is considering making that account subject to legislative approval. Currently, the Legislature approves only the authority’s operating budget.

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 699-6261 or at:

[email protected]