PORTLAND – More transparency, stricter financial accountability and open communication with employees are what Daniel Wathen believes will set the Maine Turnpike Authority on a path to respectability.
Wathen, a former chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, spoke Wednesday about the lessons he learned from the scandal surrounding former turnpike authority Executive Director Paul Violette.
Wathen, who now is chairman of the authority’s board of directors, made his comments after an ethics panel discussion at the University of Maine School of Law.
“Corruption in government, at least here in Maine, happens so rarely. I just think we have to keep an eye out for it. We’re small state. We all know when something is wrong,” Wathen said.
Wathen was joined on the panel by Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, former Attorney General William Schneider and Jennifer Miller, an attorney and executive vice president for Sappi Fine Papers of America.
The topic for the fifth annual governance and ethics symposium was “Governance, Ethics and Accountability in the Public and Private Sectors: Lessons Learned, Not Learned and Still to be Learned.”
Violette was sentenced in April 2012 to 3½ years in prison for misusing as much as $230,000 from the turnpike authority.
He used the money over a period of seven years to stay at five-star hotels and eat meals at high-end restaurants in the United States and overseas.
In an interview after the forum, Wathen said he and the authority’s current executive director, Peter Mills, have adopted a series of cultural changes that they believe will prevent another scandal.
“One of the things I learned is, a financial audit is not the same as a fraud audit,” Wathen said.
He said that under the current system, all bills and credit card charges are looked at by authority officials. And Wathen, rather than the executive director, now sets the agenda for board meetings.
“If something is bothering me, I want to be able to talk about it at a meeting,” Wathen said.
Wathen said he and Mills have established an open-door policy, to be more accessible to authority employees and the public. He said the authority now operates an anonymous whistleblower hotline.
Panelists were asked by the audience if state employees have someone they can turn to if an ethical question arises at work. Janet Mills said there is no one like that in state government.
“I don’t think we have an ethics police officer,” she said.
Mills said the best ethical standard for government employees to follow may be one suggested during the forum by Wathen: “Would I do this if my mother was watching?”
Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: