AUGUSTA — The former head of the Maine Turnpike Authority purchased nearly $200,000 in gift cards at upscale hotels and restaurants to give to charitable and civic groups for fundraisers, according to state officials who said today they could document only $15,000 of those cards actually going to the groups.
On the advice of his attorney, Paul Violette declined to answer questions while being grilled about the gift cards by members of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee. He mostly kept his eyes down, and often grimaced, while sitting in the audience listening to committee members questioning other turnpike authority employees.
The committee without dissent voted to refer the matter to the state attorney general’s office for further investigation.
In questioning Violette, Republican Sen. Roger Katz said evidence shows that Violette redeemed cards for himself for family Christmas-week getaways at the Lucerne Inn in central Maine, for $1,500 worth of spa services and for a $1,000 down payment toward a $1,500 tuxedo. He questioned Violette about how the cards were used at expensive hotels in France, Italy, the Czech Republic, Canada and Bermuda, as well as other places.
Besides using gift cards for personal spending, Katz said Violette also used turnpike authority funds for what he deemed “lavish” spending for travel, meals and entertainment for turnpike business — including a $31,000 party at the Marriott in South Portland to celebrate the completion of the Maine Turnpike widening project in 2005.
In his final question to Violette, Katz looked at him and said: “If you caught a toll taker taking money from a cash drawer, what would you have done?”
The committee last year directed the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to compile a report on turnpike authority operations and finances. The authority is a quasi-state agency that runs the 109-mile Maine Turnpike, which carries more than 60 million vehicles a year.
Violette resigned last month after 23 years on the job amid questions about the gift cards. He said he gave the cards to a number of charitable and civic groups so they could give them away for fundraisers, but he could not document where they went.
Beth Ashcroft, director of OPEGA, told committee members that after further investigation her office was able to determine that only $15,100 of the gift cards were received by the charitable and civic groups from which her office requested records. Her office also sought information from hotels and restaurants and other vendors that sold the cards to the authority.
“Several vendors provided records indicating that gift certificates, or other MTA funds, had been used by Paul Violette to procure items or services that do not appear to be business-related,” Ashcroft said.
One by one, the committee called turnpike authority employees and board members and questioned them about what they knew about the cards.
Neil Libby, the authority’s chief financial officer, said Violette began purchasing gift cards in the 1990s, but that didn’t cause concern because they typically amounted to only a few thousand dollars a year. But over time, the gift card purchases and Violette’s other spending kept growing to the point where Libby finally confronted Violette in December 2005.
Violette assured Libby he would control his spending, but the gift card purchases continued into the following year and Libby and another MTA finance official confronted Violette again in December 2006, he said.
Katz asked Libby if a “sandwich shop on the corner” might be keeping better financial records than the authority did over the gift cards.
“As it turns out, I think you’re probably right,” Libby said.
Peter Mills, a former legislator and gubernatorial candidate who is now serving as the authority’s acting executive director, told the board that the agency for years has suffered from a “culture of extravagance.” Since Mills took over, the authority has banned the practice of donating to outside groups and has cut the number of employee credit cards from 51 to 13.
“We are thoroughly committed to changing the culture, as long as it may take,” he said.