Violette suit may impact York toll plan

Posted: July 26, 2011 | Government Oversight Committee, Senator Hill, Transportation, Uncategorized
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MTA’s Mills says new plaza is still an option
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July 24, 2011 2:00 AM

YORK, Maine — The civil lawsuit against former Maine Turnpike Authority Executive Director Paul Violette is part of a bigger picture that continues to move the MTA in a positive direction on the York tollbooth issue, according to state Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York.

The MTA lawsuit follows a forensic audit of the agency’s finances and 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.

“I really feel with what’s been happening at the MTA with the forensic audit, it’s all good changes,” Hill said on Friday. “In the end, it will all help lead the argument about the case we make on the tollbooth.”

Hill, along with state Reps. Windol Weaver and Brad Moulton, both York Republicans, York selectmen, and members of the local citizens’ group Think Again, have opposed the MTA’s plans, under Violette’s leadership, to construct a new toll plaza on Interstate 95 in York. Instead of spending upwards of $35 million to build a combination toll booth/open-road tolling plaza like that in Hampton, N.H., those opposed want to wait until all-electronic tolling becomes the most feasible alternative.

MTA Interim Executive Director Peter Mills, who replaced Violette, is currently reviewing feasibility options through new studies being conducted by a consultant other than the MTA’s former engineering firm, HNTB Inc., which had recommended four options. Three were to build new on sites north of the current plaza in York.

The toll plaza project has been on hold for at least a year, pending the MTA’s response to a list of questions posed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency making the decision on construction. The MTA is under no deadline to submit the response, Mills said.

Mills does not rule out building a new plaza, but will visit York, town officials and selectmen before that decision is made, he said. “The ball is probably in our court, we’re proceeding in a fairly deliberate way,” Mills said. “The question on the table is how long can we continue with the current toll plaza, and is it worth persevering with the old plaza while we wait for electronic tolling to come into its own?”

Rep. Weaver got the issue started four years ago when he successfully brought forward legislation to postpone a tollbooth decision. Weaver said he did so after meeting with Marshall Jarvis of Think Again.

“All of this other stuff built up after that,” Weaver said Thursday. “Peter (Mills), he’s going to make a decision. We don’t know how that’s going to go.”

Think Again spokesmen Marshall and Joan Jarvis, who have been following the audit of the MTA and Violette, released this statement Tuesday: “We were surprise at the misuse of MTA funds by Paul Violette and the lack of oversight by the board. The goal of Think Again continues to be to stop the relocation of the York toll plaza and the unnecessary spending of $120 million dollars of public funds.”

While the MTA projects tollbooth construction at upwards of $35 million, Marshall and Joan Jarvis said they believe the cost, including interest to bond the project, will be closer to $120 million.

Violette resigned in March after serving 23 years as executive director of the quasi-municipal agency. The Maine Turnpike collects about $100 million a year in tolls. His departure came less than two months after a report from the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA) questioned MTA spending, including more than $1 million on travel and meals, from 2005 to 2009.

A further forensic audit “pointed to Paul (Violette),” MTA spokesman Scott Tompkins said Tuesday. “He found some loopholes in the system and used them.”

The lawsuit claims that, from May 2003 to September 2007, Violette purchased gift cards from “expensive” hotels and restaurants using $186,642 in MTA funds. An estimated $160,000 in gift cards was either redeemed by Violette for his personal use or given by him to unknown recipients, it said.

The OPEGA report came out eight months after a request was made by then-state Rep. Hill to look into the MTA. She then served on the Government Oversight Committee as a state representative.

“The audit and OPEGA report put Paul Violette’s judgement and decision making, his self-serving actions, put it all on the table,” she said. “Now we see how much he ran everything. It makes me feel we’re in a much better position. It squarely puts (the HNTB) report in question.”