PORTLAND — The Maine Turnpike Authority announced Monday that it will no longer hire lobbyists.

The decision by the authority’s board of directors means that contracts with Preti Flaherty, a Portland-based law firm, and Richard Trahey, an Augusta-based lobbyist, will be terminated immediately, said Scott Tompkins, spokesman for the authority.

Lobbying and testimony on legislation affecting the authority will be handled by Conrad Welzel, the authority’s governmental relations manager, and other staff members.

Hiring lobbyists “was clearly something that concerned the Government Oversight Committee and the board felt it probably was an unnecessary expense,” Tompkins said.

The quasi-state agency’s use of lobbyists was called into question recently by the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee during its review of an audit that spanned five years.

The audit, by the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, focused on operating expenses, such as lobbying, that “might be questioned as to their reasonableness, appropriateness or necessity.”

Tompkins said the figure cited in the audit as the lobbying costs from 2005 to 2009 — $577,237 — is not accurate because it includes costs related to consulting and legal fees.

Tompkins said the authority spent $133,689 — about $27,000 a year — on lobbying from 2005 to 2009.

Turnpike officials and legislators said Monday’s decision brought the authority in line with other quasi-governmental agencies, such as MaineHousing and the Finance Authority of Maine, none of which employs outside lobbyists.

State Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, a co-chairman of the Government Oversight Committee, said he expects the committee to propose legislation to ban all state departments and quasi-governmental agencies from hiring lobbyists.

“It’s a positive statement,” Katz said of Monday’s announcement. “Peter Mills is doing all the right things.”

Mills, a former legislator, was appointed interim executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority this month after longtime director Paul Violette resigned amid questions about the authority’s spending practices.

The agency has come under intense scrutiny by the Legislature since the audit showed that it distributed $157,000 worth of gift certificates to various organizations in 2005 and 2006. The authority has been unable to provide records of the transactions.

Katz said the scrutiny is warranted.

“The authority has forgotten that it is a public agency entrusted with public funds. They’ve been out of the public spotlight for far too long,” Katz said.

Last week, Mills canceled the turnpike authority’s annual employee recognition banquet, ending a 21-year tradition, because of concerns that the agency had been too lavish in its spending.

“Along with curtailing the annual employee recognition banquet and ceasing corporate donations, (dropping lobbyists) marks the third expense policy change in a week,” Mills said in a statement issued Monday. “It’s another clear signal the Maine Turnpike Authority board is committed to bringing more transparency and accountability to the agency.”

Republican Sen. David Trahan of Waldoboro, a member of the oversight committee, commended the authority for ending its practice of hiring outside lobbyists.

Trahan, who is also a co-chairman of the Taxation Committee, said it is inappropriate for an agency like the turnpike authority to try to influence the decisions of state lawmakers.

Terminating contracts with lobbyists is a step in the right direction, he said.

“I think a culture evolved over there. They became their own little empire,” Trahan said. “I think that a lot of positives will come from this (audit).”

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: [email protected]