Saturday, May 25, 2013
AUGUSTA - A leader of the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee gave Maine Turnpike Authority officials a March 4 deadline Friday to produce documents that explain who received gift cards to expensive hotels from the authority.
WHERE DID THE GIFT CARDS GO?
Some of the groups that received gift cards from the Maine Turnpike Authority:
Maine Better Transportation Association
Friends of Scarborough Marsh
Family Crisis Shelter
Biddeford Chamber of Commerce
Saco Chamber of Commerce
Source: Dec. 20 memo from MTA Executive Director Paul Violette
Republican Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, the committee's Senate chairman, criticized the authority for the $157,000 in gift certificate expenses disclosed last month in a report on turnpike activities by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.
The authority's executive director, Paul Violette, gave out most of the cards as donations to "a variety of organizations," said Maine Turnpike Authority spokesman Scott Tompkins.
But in a memo to government accountability investigators, Violette wrote that "records were not kept that would allow the MTA to describe in a comprehensive manner what organizations received donations and in what amount."
Katz said he wants more detail.
"Where did those gift cards go?" he said. "Who got them? Who spent them?"
Katz also asked investigators to write letters to the hotel companies and those who may have received the cards to get more information.
"Throughout this OPEGA review, the authority has told us they are really more like a business than a government agency," Katz said. "Yet it is hard to imagine any business in Maine that would fail to keep records -- for tax reasons, for internal financial controls -- of where $157,000 went."
The gift cards were bought with toll money collected by the authority and spent on "luxury hotel chains such as Marriott, and other ones that make the Marriott look like Motel 6," Katz said.
That list includes the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City and The Leading Hotels of the World, which is described on its website as a company that "features small luxury hotels, resort hotels as well as world-renowned stately hotels offering all the possibilities for family getaways, romantic escapades and business meetings."
Katz also cited gift certificates from Relais & Chateaux, a company that is "a collection of the most beautiful restaurants and hotels scattered around the world," according to its website.
Turnpike officials have said the practice ended in 2007.
Violette wrote in his memo that he recalled giving gift certificates to groups such as the Maine Better Transportation Association, Maine Preservation, the Friends of Scarborough Marsh, the Family Crisis Shelter and Ducks Unlimited.
Violette attended Friday's committee work session but did not speak on the issue.
Greg Paxton, executive director of Maine Preservation, said he was not with the organization before 2008, when certificates were being given by the turnpike authority. He said he did not know the value of his group's certificate, which was raffled off, or where it could have been redeemed.
Lawmakers examined the turnpike authority and the OPEGA report for the third time Friday. The report contains seven recommendations for improvement, including more competitive bidding, better contract management, criteria for sponsorships and donations, and better documentation for travel and meal expenses.
The MTA's travel and meal expenses -- which have included limousine services, expensive meals, in-room movies and alcoholic beverages -- have drawn considerable attention from the oversight committee and the public.
The report shows that in 2005, the authority spent $411,847 on travel and meals. The amount dropped to $132,441 by 2009. Over the five years examined, the authority spent $1.1 million on travel and meals.
The committee scheduled a meeting for March 11 to continue reviewing the authority. Some parts of the report are likely to end up in legislation, and the Legislature's Transportation Committee will play a role in shaping a bill, Katz said.
The turnpike authority has promised to implement many changes in response to the report. Tompkins said the most controversial expenditures represent a small part of the authority's $100 million annual budget.
"When you take a step back and get to the 20,000-foot level, it's an extremely well-run organization," he said. "Practices that no longer exist are being scrutinized so much."
MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: