AUGUSTA – From 2004 to 2009, the Maine Turnpike Authority gave Maine Preservation $27,000 in cash donations and several thousand dollars’ worth of gift certificates for restaurants and hotels, which the nonprofit group sold to raise money.

During most of that period, the turnpike authority’s executive director, Paul Violette, served on Maine Preservation’s board of trustees.

Some lawmakers say the donations and Violette’s connection to Maine Preservation created the appearance of a conflict of interest. A legislative panel is now drafting a bill that would prevent the authority and every other quasi-state agency in Maine from engaging in such practices.

Violette was the turnpike authority’s executive director for 23 years. He resigned this month amid questions about the authority’s spending practices, including donations to groups with no direct link to its mission and its failure to keep records of the gift certificates it purchased and gave away.

From 2005 to 2009, the turnpike authority spent $454,000 on sponsorships and donations, including gift cards, to as many as 50 groups, according to a report by the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Governmental Accountability.

The authority’s board of directors voted Thursday to prohibit the agency from making any more charitable donations. While the authority will continue to sponsor events and join trade groups, turnpike officials will now have to show that the agency will receive a tangible benefit from doing so.

While the turnpike authority has been the focus of attention recently, lawmakers are reviewing the charitable-giving practices of other state entities.

Members of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee say that donating public money to a charitable group can create the appearance of a conflict of interest. Committee members decided Friday to draft legislation to prohibit any quasi-governmental agency from donating money to charitable groups outside its mission.

Among the agencies that would be affected are MaineHousing, the Maine Port Authority, the Finance Authority of Maine, the University of Maine System, the Maine Community College System and the Maine Public Broadcasting Corp.

Given the current economic climate, it’s inappropriate to take public money that’s intended for one purpose and donate it for another, said Rep. Leslie Fossel, R-Alna, a member of the Government Oversight Committee.

Fossel said he served with Violette on the board of trustees of Maine Preservation when Violette was giving the group gift certificates for fundraising events.

Fossel said it raised “red flags” with him and he was relieved when Violette decided to stop donating turnpike authority money to the group.

Fossel said it appeared that Violette had worked for the authority for so long that he had become insulated and lost perspective.

“There weren’t people saying, ‘Paul, you shouldn’t be doing this,’ ” Fossel said. “I don’t think the guy is fundamentally dishonest.”

Violette served on Maine Preservation’s board from 2001 to 2007.

Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, said it appeared that the turnpike authority used its donations to make allies of politically influential groups.

“It’s a practice of buying influence to protect yourself from a level of accountability from the State House,” he said.

Violette is referring questions to his attorney, Peter DeTroy, who declined comment Friday.

The Government Oversight Committee has asked Violette to testify before it on April 15. On Friday, the committee voted 9-1 to subpoena Violette if he does not indicate by March 31 that he will speak voluntarily.

Other groups that benefited from the turnpike authority’s donations were the Maine Irish Heritage Center, the New England Pond Hockey Festival, the Maine Restaurant Association, the Maine Grocers Association, the Nature Conservancy of Maine, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Center for Economic Policy.

Violette is not the only turnpike authority official for whom charitable donations created an apparent conflict of interest.

In 2009, when the Androscoggin Land Trust wanted to raise money for its trail system in Auburn and Lewiston, it contacted Lucien Gosselin, a Lewiston resident and president of the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council.

Gosselin was also vice chairman of the Maine Turnpike Authority’s board of directors, a post he still holds.

The turnpike authority gave the group $600 to buy a table at a fundraising dinner at the Hilton Garden Inn in Auburn. Gosselin and other people he invited attended the event, according to Jonathan LaBonte, executive director of the land trust.

Gosselin could not be reached for comment.

Also in 2009, the Maine Irish Heritage Center gave a prestigious award to Gerard Conley Sr., who has been a member of the turnpike authority’s board for the past seven years. That same year, the turnpike authority gave the Maine Irish Heritage Center a check for $2,500.

Conley has never been a board member of the Maine Irish Heritage Center. In an interview this week, he said he was not aware of the donation.

He said he received the award because of his long political career that included two decades in the Legislature, during which he served as Senate Democratic leader and Senate president.

“I knew nothing about it until the OPEGA report came out,” Conley said of the donation.

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