Seacoast Online | Maine Turnpike Authority to recover $430K in lawsuit settlement

Posted: December 16, 2011 | Government Oversight Committee, News Items, Senator Hill, Transportation
Source: Seacoast Online, Susan Morse, December 16, 2011

PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Turnpike Authority has agreed to accept $430,000 in damages from former Executive Director Paul Violette and its two bonding companies, according to a statement the agency released Thursday.

The settlement averts a civil lawsuit brought by the MTA and is considered full reimbursement for damages pursued after an independent government report released earlier this year revealed questionable expenditures by Violette and his inability to account for funds under his personal control, according to the MTA statement.

The MTA lawsuit, based on a forensic audit of the agency’s finances, claims Violette misused nearly $500,000 in turnpike funds on gift cards, credit card charges, and vacation and sick leave pay to which he wasn’t entitled.

Under the settlement, Violette will pay $155,000, an amount he said under oath is equivalent in value to his present net worth, according to the MTA.

MTA spokesman Dan Morin said the funds represent Violette’s equity in a bank account and a condominium.

The MTA’s bonding insurance companies, Travelers Casualty and CNA Surety, are paying $175,000 and $100,000, respectively, according to MTA Executive Director Peter Mills.

The evaluation of the amount owed was done by turnpike staff and its auditing firm, Runyon, Kersteen & Ouellette, Mills said in the MTA statement.

MTA Board Chairman Daniel Wathen said the money will be reinvested into turnpike operations. The civil settlement is independent of an ongoing criminal investigation by the Office of the Maine Attorney General, according to Wathen.

The Maine Attorney General’s Office was scheduled to release the findings of its investigation this month, according to state Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, who spearheaded the independent investigation of MTA finances and operations that led to Violette’s resignation in March.

“The Attorney General’s Office is still working on its investigation,” Hill said Thursday. “Originally, they said they wanted something out in December. It will be interesting to me how this affects the criminal case.”

Hill and other lawmakers interviewed Thursday said they were surprised by the reimbursement deal.

“After working so hard for four years to shed openness and light on the Maine Turnpike Authority,” Hill said, “I am pleased with the results.”

Then state-Rep. Hill requested the independent report of the MTA. The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability released the results in January.

Hill; state Reps. Windol Weaver and Brad Moulton, both York Republicans; York selectmen; and members of the local citizens group Think Again opposed the MTA’s plans, under Violette’s leadership, to construct a new toll plaza on Interstate 95 in York.

“I’m just real happy we’ve got it back,” Weaver said of the reimbursement money. “The people of Maine should thank OPEGA in identifying (the funds), so we could pursue it.”

Moulton said Thursday, “I was pleased to see that, based upon the report, the amount the turnpike authority claims was missing has been refunded. That is a big deal.”

Think Again spokesman Joan Jarvis said, “That’s exciting. We believe that Paul Violette exercised very poor judgment and is doing the right thing to return the funds.”

Since the OPEGA report, the MTA board has implemented a number of financial controls, including a system for compliance auditing and strengthened internal controls, said Mills.