The Maine Turnpike Authority plans to sue its former executive director in an effort to recover hundreds of thousands of dollars he allegedly spent on himself or on extravagances related to his job.
The authority’s interim director, Peter Mills, said Monday that the turnpike authority expects to take legal action against Paul Violette as early as today. Mills would not say how much money the authority will seek.
Violette’s attorney, Peter DeTroy of Portland, would say only that he expects the lawsuit to seek significantly more than the nearly $200,000 that Violette spent on gift cards for high-end hotels and restaurants in North America and Europe, most of which went undocumented.
“There was also a claim there were credit card charges that were used personally, rather than for (turnpike authority) business,” DeTroy said.
“They’ve had an investigation done,” he said of the turnpike authority. “Based on the information they have, the fact they’re bringing a civil case doesn’t shock me. … Having said that, I think the political context puts a lot of pressure on them to pursue something publicly.”
Violette resigned in March after 23 years as director of the quasi-governmental agency, which operates the Maine Turnpike and collects about $100 million a year in tolls.
His departure followed the release of a report by the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which found that hundreds of thousands of dollars in charges could not be accounted for or appeared unrelated to turnpike authority business.
At a hearing in April before the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, Violette was asked about nearly $200,000 worth of gift cards that had been purchased with turnpike authority funds, ostensibly as donations to other groups but for which there were no records.
According to evidence presented at the hearing, Violette redeemed cards for himself, for family getaways at the Lucerne Inn in Hancock County, for $1,500 worth of spa services in Portland, and for a $1,000 down payment on a $1,500 tuxedo from a clothing shop in Portland.
Gift cards also were used at expensive hotels in France, Italy, the Czech Republic, Canada and Bermuda.
Violette refused to answer questions at the hearing, citing his constitutional right not to incriminate himself.
The state Attorney General’s Office is in the midst of a criminal probe, and the turnpike authority has done an internal audit.
Investigators with the Attorney General’s Office are looking closely at the accountability office’s report and what the turnpike authority’s audit has uncovered, DeTroy said, and they have subpoena power to gather more information.
He said he expects that any criminal case would be brought before the end of this year.
Violette will likely seek to suspend the civil case while there is potential for criminal charges, DeTroy said, although that will be up to a judge.
The lawsuit probably will be filed in Cumberland County Superior Court, the jurisdiction that includes the authority’s headquarters in Portland, Mills said. He said he will provide more details once the lawsuit is filed.
“There’s a strong desire on the part of the (turnpike authority’s) board to behave in an open and transparent way,” Mills said. “If and when there’s a filing, it will be in plain English.”
State Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, a co-chair of the Government Oversight Committee, said he is not surprised that the authority is seeking to recoup the public’s money. He said Mills indicated early in his tenure that he would do that.
“Based upon what we heard, they’re doing exactly the right thing,” Katz said. “I think the principle is important. If there is a misuse of public money, $5,000 or $500,000, the board is wise to try to get it back.”
Katz noted that the legislative inquiry went back only to 2004, and that a lawsuit could look at years before that.
DeTroy said most of the lawsuit is likely to cover allegations brought up during the committee hearing and through the accountability office’s investigation, but there are a few additional allegations. He would not elaborate.
“We have the criminal case hanging over us, which makes it very hard for us to make public comments responding to a civil case,” he said.
Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org