Five years ago this summer, back when he and his top managers were in hot water over a $295 bottle of Chateau Mouton Rothschild they’d downed at a pricey Portland restaurant, I asked then-Executive Director Paul Violette how the high-end vino jibed with the Maine Turnpike Authority’s policy on wining and dining.

“That was altogether outside the norm,” a seemingly contrite Violette assured me at the time.

He was right.

For starters, that dinner tab – $1,342.28, was picked up by a turnpike contractor who was just trying to show his, ahem, appreciation for the business.

And when it comes to the libation, it turns out that a $295 bottle of wine, in Violette’s world, was actually the cheap stuff.

“In the present case, there can be little question as to the Defendant’s liability,” says the turnpike authority’s motion for attachment filed Tuesday, along with a five-count complaint against Violette, in Cumberland County Superior Court. “With his distinguished educational and public service background, (Violette) should have known better than to misuse his position as Executive Director to convert Maine Turnpike Authority funds to his own personal use, benefit and enjoyment.”

We can only hope that someday, Violette will step forward and explain his amazing journey from the University of Maine School of Law to the Maine House of Representatives to the Maine Senate (where he served as Democratic majority leader) to 23 years atop the Maine Turnpike Authority and what now looks like the most brazen violation of the public trust in recent Maine history.

But if the lawsuit by his former employer is any indication, there’s only one explanation for how he got here from there:

In Violette’s world – where for years the turnpike board rubber-stamped annual external audits that routinely reported that the appropriate checks and balances were in place without anyone verifying they were being used – the executive director ultimately answered to no one but himself.

And Violette, it appears, wasn’t asking himself any questions.

According to the lawsuit, last winter’s investigation of Violette’s shenanigans by the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability – which focused on $160,000 worth of gift cards that the office found were purchased by Violette with authority funds only to vanish into thin air – was only the beginning.

In fact, a long-overdue forensic audit commissioned in March by the turnpike’s board of directors – a wake-up call if ever there was one – makes that long-ago bottle of Mouton Rothschild look like a jug of Kool-Aid.

We’re talking $24,819.75 in “personal credit card expenses” from 2003 through 2010 that, according to the lawsuit, were “fraudulently incurred for (Violette’s) personal use and not for any legitimate business of the Authority.”

We’re talking an additional $143,479.92 in “abusive credit card expenses” allegedly run up by Violette “without evidence that the funds were expended for legitimate business of the Authority.”

And we’re talking $184,889 and $130,729, respectively, in “unused” vacation and sick-leave payouts to a man who told his employer, presumably with a straight face, that in 23 years he’d never, ever taken a vacation day or called in sick.

“Although the Defendant falsely claimed not to have taken any vacation during the entire period of his employment, it has since been determined that he did, in fact, take vacations on a number of occasions,” the complaint says.

Indeed.

Take last fall, for example. According to the lawsuit, the day planner for the guy who never took a day off shows Violette “on vacation” in Sicily from Sept. 20 through Oct. 2.

The rental villa went for $3,239.99. The phone rental was $402.01. The car rental came in at $297.56. All three charges, the auditor found, were made to the turnpike authority.

“Violette acknowledged that they were personal and would reimburse the Authority for them,” notes an exhibit attached to the complaint. “To date, he has not done so.”

The list goes on … and on … and on …

There’s the $243.50 for “car service” from Portland to Logan International Airport in Boston back in 2005. (Dare we ask if the driver at least had E-ZPass?)

There’s the $1,000 “cash advance” the same year at a casino in Puerto Rico, where Violette was attending a meeting of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association. (Must have been a boring agenda.)

And then there’s the 2003 trip to Martha’s Vineyard, including a $643.65 “meal” and $558.75 “flight.” (Seriously? He had to fly to Martha’s Vineyard?)

Bottom line: The turnpike authority says it would feel justified in slapping an attachment of just under $525,000 on Violette’s assets, which according to Portland’s tax records include a condo on the Eastern Promenade valued at $208,400. But the authority says in its court filing that it will settle for the “conservative amount of $450,000.”

Don’t expect a check-passing anytime soon.

Peter DeTroy, Violette’s attorney, said in a brief interview Tuesday that he’ll ask the court to postpone the civil case against Violette until an ongoing criminal investigation by the Maine attorney general runs its course.

As for his client, who in April took the Fifth on virtually every question he got from the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, DeTroy said he wouldn’t rule out a public statement from Violette at some point down the road. But now, he said, is not that time.

“I think this has been pretty devastating to him,” said DeTroy.

Accountability can do that to people.

In the world of Paul Violette, after all, it’s altogether outside the norm.

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]