AUGUSTA – From 2005 to 2009, the head of the Maine Turnpike Authority billed his agency more than $200,000 for hotels, meals and other expenses, according to documents obtained by the Legislature’s oversight office.

The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability released a summary of the turnpike authority’s spending in a report to the Legislature in January. MaineToday Media has obtained documents that detail expenditures on turnpike authority credit cards held by then-Executive Director Paul Violette.

For example, the documents show charges of $5,533 for lodging at the Black Point Inn in Scarborough; $7,654 for lodging at the Park Hyatt in Chicago for Violette, “board members and others”; and $3,018 for lodging at the Hotel Esplanade Praha, a five-star hotel in Prague in the Czech Republic, for Violette, “board members and others.”

Violette also stayed at luxury hotels such as the Castle Hill Inn in Newport, R.I. ($631 per night) and the Bellagio in Las Vegas ($654 per night).

The documents, totaling 12 pages, provide information about more than 250 charges – date, location, total charge, the expense as described by Violette, the expense type as assumed by outside analysts, people covered by each charge, and the purpose of each expense.

In several instances, however, the description of the transaction is limited to the date, location and total amount.

Violette is the only person identified in the documents. Others who were covered by the expenses were described by Violette only as “various individuals (business),” “other MTA,” “MTA/Board Management Group” or “board members and others.”

Violette, who was paid an annual salary of $128,000, resigned last month amid controversy surrounding the authority’s spending practices, including donations of $157,000 worth of gift certificates to various organizations. The authority has been unable to provide records of its purchases and donations of the certificates.

Violette, a Democrat, was executive director of the turnpike authority for 23 years. The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee has subpoenaed him to appear before the panel Friday and answer questions about the authority’s spending practices.

Violette is not speaking to the press. His attorney, Peter DeTroy, did not return phone calls for this story.

DeTroy has said that Violette will probably assert his constitutional right against self-incrimination and refuse to answer questions from the committee that imply he was involved in criminal conduct.

Violette’s credit card statements were obtained by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability last year as it reviewed the turnpike authority’s operations. The Legislature authorized the review because, since 1997, the turnpike authority has not transferred any surplus funds to the Maine Department of Transportation, as required by law.

The turnpike authority, a quasi-state agency, collects about $100 million a year in tolls along the 109-mile highway from Kittery to Augusta.

The accountability office, whose review covered 2005 to 2009, found that the turnpike authority spent a total of $947,000 on meals and travel in that period.

The authority has had a comprehensive policy for travel by its staff, but the review showed instances in which it paid for items and services that were either discouraged or prohibited under the policy, such as limousine service, expensive hotels, in-room movies and alcoholic beverages.

It also showed that travel and meal expenses charged to the authority’s credit cards did not have all of the required documentation, such as detailed receipts, time, place, the names of people who participated, and the purpose of the expenses.

Many of the expenses had no documentation at all.

The turnpike authority had 51 credit cards for 22 employees. Last week, it recalled and destroyed all but 15, which are in the hands of nine staff members.

Scott Tompkins, the turnpike authority’s spokesman, said the agency is now adopting the same travel rules as the Maine Department of Transportation, which uses U.S. General Services Administration guidelines to determine maximum rates.

For example, the maximum lodging rate for low-cost areas is $60, plus tax, per night. The maximum dinner rate is $18.

The maximum lodging rate in Manhattan is $212, and maximum spending on meals and other expenses is $73 a day.

By comparison, charges on Violette’s credit cards included a $1,051 restaurant tab at the Royal River Grill in Yarmouth for Violette and “various individuals,” and $7,976 at the Hotel Palais de la Mediterranee in Nice, France.

Until the new policy for travel and meals is in place, the turnpike authority’s interim director, Peter Mills, plans to limit staff members’ travel. Mills said he will personally examine all travel requests before giving approval.

He said travel is sometimes critical because officials must attend meetings that help them stay current with technology, such as software for the E-ZPass toll collection system.

Mills said he doesn’t plan to travel in the coming months, except to Boston for a regional meeting of toll agencies. He said he’ll drive his own car, and drive back to Maine the same day.

“Nobody is going to Europe. Nobody is even going to Canada,” he said.

Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, House chairman of the Government Oversight Committee, said the panel wants to talk to Violette and other turnpike authority officials Friday about the spending for travel and meals.

Burns said the level of spending indicated in the financial documents is not appropriate for a quasi-governmental agency that receives its money from the traveling public. “We are trying to determine how these expenditures were made, under whose authority, for what purposes and who benefited,” Burns said.

Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, a committee member, said he found the spending detailed in the documents particularly infuriating because he grew up in a poor family and struggles today to earn a living as a logger.

He said many of the people who drive on the Maine Turnpike live paycheck-to-paycheck and depend on the turnpike to get to their jobs.

“I’m shocked that officials could take money away from toll payers so they could go and live high off the hog,” he said. 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be reached at 699-6261 or at:
tbell@mainetoday.com