This story was updated at 10:38 a.m. on Friday, June 18, 2011 to correct the reported length of the turnpike.

PORTLAND – Aiming to restore public trust, the Maine Turnpike Authority has turned to a former legislator and gubernatorial candidate, Peter Mills, to be its interim executive director.

The authority’s board of directors voted unanimously Thursday to appoint Mills, a moderate Republican who served in the Legislature for 16 years and is respected by lawmakers in both parties.

Mills, 67, will replace Paul Violette, who was executive director for 23 years until he resigned last week amid questions about the authority’s spending practices.

Mills’ appointment comes at a critical time for the authority, which operates and maintains the 109-mile toll road. Gov. Paul LePage and some lawmakers have suggested that Maine might be better off if the turnpike authority — and its $100 million a year in toll revenue — were folded into the Department of Transportation.

Mills said Thursday that such a merger is a bad idea because the authority has been a well-run organization, serving as a model for how states can maintain highways at a time of declining revenue. He said he will increase the transparency of the authority’s operations and restore public trust.

Mills is expected to serve until at least September. The board and Mills have yet to agree on his pay, but he said he will not ask for any benefits and he wants to earn less than his predecessor. Violette had an annual salary of $128,378 and a benefits package worth $29,179.

Violette came under fire in a report by the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which said the authority distributed $157,000 worth of gift certificates to various organizations in 2005 and 2006. The authority has been unable to provide any record of the transactions.

The report also noted that the authority spent money on limousine services and stays at expensive hotels.

The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee wants Violette and other turnpike authority executives and board members to appear at a hearing April 15. The committee has said it may issue subpoenas if they do not appear voluntarily, and has said people should be prepared to testify under oath.

The turnpike authority’s board took other action Thursday aimed at reassuring its critics. It voted to require the authority’s chief financial officer and staff attorney to report to the board. Previously, only the executive director reported to the board.

The board also instructed the accounting firm Runyon Kersteen Ouellette to do an independent forensic audit with input from the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

Lucien Gosselin, vice chairman of the board, said the audit will be more thorough than the review by the legislative office. “We’re going to get to the bottom,” he said.

Mills, an attorney, is noted for his open and direct manner of speaking and his enthusiasm for tackling difficult subjects, such as tax reform. He ran twice for the Republican nomination for governor, losing in 2006 to Chandler Woodcock and last year to LePage. He lives in Cornville and runs a law office in Skowhegan.

LePage and legislative leaders from both parties praised Mills’ appointment Thursday. LePage said in a written statement that Mills’ “integrity, experience and commitment to public service” are needed to restore trust and confidence in the turnpike authority, a quasi-state agency.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, who co-chairs the Government Oversight Committee, said Mills will give the authority much-needed credibility as it deals with “serious questions of financial misconduct.”

“He’s got the respect of people on both sides of the aisle,” Katz said.

Mills is the perfect person for the job, said Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, who co-chaired the oversight committee last year, when it instructed the program evaluation office to review the authority.

“He can go in there and take a top-to-bottom look and help the Maine Turnpike Authority pull itself together and move forward,” she said.

Rep. Donald Pilon, D-Saco, the ranking House Democrat on the oversight committee, said Mills is a good choice to be interim director, but the authority should find someone with business and transportation experience to be its permanent director.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, and Rep. Edward Mazurek, D-Rockland, the ranking Democrats on the Transportation Committee, also praised Mills’ appointment. The committee’s House chair, Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples, said Mills will be an “independent voice of reason.”

Gosselin said the authority considered eight candidates and had difficulty coming to agreement. He said Mills emerged as the only candidate who could win the board’s support.

He said Mills’ communication skills and “impeccable” reputation with both Democrats and Republicans will help restore confidence in the authority.

To help Mills with transportation and engineering issues, the board agreed to hire Roger Mallar as a consultant. Mallar was Maine’s transportation commissioner under Govs. Ken Curtis, James Longley and Joseph Brennan.

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

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