Ex-official is silent on expenses

Hearing grills Maine turnpike chief on gift cards

A committee asked Paul Violette about $200,000 worth of purchased gift cards. A committee asked Paul Violette about $200,000 worth of purchased gift cards. (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press)
By Clarke Canfield
Associated Press / April 16, 2011

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AUGUSTA, Maine — The former head of the Maine Turnpike Authority purchased nearly $200,000 in gift cards at upscale hotels and restaurants to give to charitable and civic groups for fund-raisers, according to state officials who said yesterday that they could document only $15,000 of those cards going to the groups.

On the advice of his lawyer, Paul Violette declined to answer questions while being grilled about the gift cards by members of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee. He mostly kept his eyes down, and often grimaced, while sitting in the audience listening to committee members questioning other Turnpike Authority employees.

In questioning Violette, Senator Roger Katz, a Republican, said evidence shows that Violette redeemed cards for himself for family Christmas-week getaways at the Lucerne Inn in central Maine, for $1,500 worth of spa services and for a $1,000 down payment toward a $1,500 tuxedo. He questioned Violette about how the cards were used at expensive hotels in France, Italy, the Czech Republic, Canada, and Bermuda, and other places.

Besides using gift cards for personal spending, Katz said Violette also used Turnpike Authority funds for what he deemed lavish spending for travel, meals, and entertainment, including a $31,000 party at a South Portland hotel to celebrate completion of the turnpike widening project in 2005.

In his final question to Violette, Katz looked at him and said: “If you caught a toll taker taking money from a cash drawer, what would you have done?’’

Last year, the committee directed the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to compile a report on Turnpike Authority operations and finances.

The authority is a quasi-state agency that runs the 109-mile Maine Turnpike, used by more than 60 million vehicles a year.

Violette resigned last month after 23 years on the job amid questions about the gift cards. He said he gave the cards to a number of charitable and civic groups so they could give them away for fund-raisers, but he could not document where they went.

Beth Ashcroft, director of the accountability office, told committee members that after further investigation her office was able to determine that only $15,100 of the gift cards was received by the charitable and civic groups from which her office requested records.

“Several vendors provided records indicating that gift certificates or other [authority] funds had been used by Paul Violette to procure items or services that do not appear to be business-related,’’ Ashcroft said.

Neil Libby, the authority’s chief financial officer, said that Violette began purchasing gift cards in the 1990s, but that did not cause concern because they typically amounted to only a few thousand dollars a year.

But over time, the gift card purchases and Violette’s other spending grew to the point that Libby finally confronted Violette in December 2005.