AUGUSTA – The Maine Turnpike Authority is canceling its annual employee recognition banquet, ending a 21-year tradition because of concerns that the agency has been too lavish in its spending.

Peter Mills, the new interim executive director, decided Wednesday to cancel the banquet after meeting with the authority’s senior staff. The event was scheduled for May.

The banquet, which in recent years has been held at the Wyndham Portland Airport Hotel in South Portland and Verrillo’s Restaurant in Portland, has cost from $15,000 to $19,000. Mills said the authority needs to reduce spending so it operates more like government agencies, which have had to deal with funding cutbacks in recent years.

“It’s not that we don’t like our employees. We do,” said Mills, who started at his new post last Thursday. “But we are going to have to live in a different financial atmosphere. We have to be much more careful about how our revenues are spent.”

Mills said he will not be driving the mid-sized SUV, a Chevrolet Equinox, that the authority purchased last June for its former executive director, Paul Violette. Violette resigned earlier this month amid questions about the authority’s spending practices.

Mills said he will trade the SUV for a truck that can be used by work crews, and he will drive his own car to work.

Violette, who had been executive director for 23 years, came under fire in a report by the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which found that the authority distributed $157,000 worth of gift certificates to various organizations in 2005 and 2006. The authority has been unable to provide any record of the transactions.

Including the gift cards, the authority spent a total of $454,000 from 2005 to 2009 on donations to groups, including some that appear to be outside its mission, such as Maine Preservation and the Maine Irish Heritage Center.

The report also questioned the authority’s use of $1.1 million for national and international travel and restaurants from 2005 to 2009. During the same period, the authority spent $222,000 on employee recognition events, awards and gifts.

Mills said he and his staff are drafting a new policy for such expenses. He said the authority will limit expenditures, such as association membership fees, to groups that directly benefit the agency, such as trade organizations made up of other toll authorities. Mills also is now requiring that he personally approve all travel plans.

Spending at the authority is not lavish when compared with spending by private corporations, he said, but it may seem excessive for a quasi-governmental agency.

“This is not corporate America,” he said. “It’s a public agency and has to do business as one.”

The authority employs about 480 people and receives about $100 million annually in toll revenues.

Sen. Roger Katz, co-chair of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, said he agreed with Mills’ decision to cancel the employee recognition banquet.

“I think it sends exactly the right message,” he said.

The Government Oversight Committee has told Violette and other senior staffers and board members who have knowledge of the gift cards to be prepared to testify under oath on April 15.

Those people had until Wednesday to say whether they will testify before the committee. All of the senior staff and board members at the authority have said they will, Katz said.

Gerard P. Conley Sr., chairman of the Maine Turnpike Authority board of directors for the past seven years, said in an interview Wednesday that he was never told about the gift cards, but he will testify.

Violette’s attorney, Peter DeTroy of Portland, said he has not had time to work on the case because of a recent medical procedure. He said the accountability office has agreed to give Violette until March 31 to say whether he will testify voluntarily or only if subpoenaed.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 699-6261 or at:

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