AUGUSTA — Only a small percentage of the gift cards purchased by the Maine Turnpike Authority for donations to civic groups ever went to the organizations, a state investigator told a bipartisan legislative oversight panel on Friday.

Between 2004 and 2010, the turnpike authority spent about $200,000 for gift cards for high-end hotels and restaurants in North America and Europe, but only $15,000 worth of cards can be accounted for, said Beth Ashcroft, director of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

There is evidence that the turnpike authority’s former director, Paul Violette, used the missing gift cards for his own use as he lived a lavish lifestyle at the public’s expense, said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee.

After an extraordinary daylong hearing, during which lawmakers grilled Violette, board members and several senior turnpike officials, the panel voted unanimously to forward its investigation of alleged financial misconduct to the Maine Attorney General’s Office.

Linda Pistner, a deputy attorney general, took notes throughout the hearing. She declined to comment.

Violette resigned last month after 23 years on the job amid questions about the gift cards.

Violette appeared at the hearing under subpoena and sat with his attorney, Peter DeTroy. Violette declined to answer most questions, asserting his constitutional right against self-incrimination.

For much of the hearing, he sat with his head down.

Katz, a trial lawyer by profession, spoke softly as he asked Violette a series of questions about the missing gift cards and the authority’s spending on luxury hotels and five-star restaurants.

Katz 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 in Portland and for a $1,000 down payment toward a $1,500 tuxedo from a Portland clothing shop.

He questioned Violette about how the cards were used at expensive hotels in France, Italy, the Czech Republic, Canada and Bermuda. The turnpike authority had spent nearly $1 million between 2005 and 2009 on travel and meals, according to Ashcroft’s investigation. While extravagant, the travel spending was legal because it could be argued it was business-related, Katz said.

However, Katz suggested that the spending associated with the missing gift cards were the actions of a thief.

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?”

Many of the gift cards used at hotels and restaurants in foreign countries were redeemed during times when Violette was traveling in those countries, according to Violette’s credit card statements, Ashcroft told the committee.

It’s unclear whether they were used for business or pleasure, she said.

On a number of occasions, she said, the gift cards were purchased and used on the same date.

The turnpike authority’s chief financial officer, Neil Libby, and treasurer, Douglas Davidson, testified that they became concerned about Violette’s spending and accounting practices in 2005. The two men said they confronted Violette about the spending at the end of the year and assumed it would stop.

They told the committee that they did not tell the authority’s board of directors because they believed it was necessary to follow “the chain of command.”

Katz asked Libby whether a “sandwich shop on the corner” might be keeping better financial records than the authority did about the gift cards.

“As it turns out, I think you’re probably right,” Libby said.

The turnpike authority board members also came under harsh questioning.

Gerard Conley Sr., who has been the board’s chairman for seven years, said he didn’t learn about the gift cards until Ashcroft told him about them during her investigation.

“She dropped that in front of me like a bomb,” he said.

Lucien Gosselin, a board member who has served as chairman the board’s finance committee since 2004, said he also was unaware of the gift cards.

He said he wished that Libby and Davidson had told him about them.

They didn’t tell him, he said, because the turnpike authority had developed an insular management culture that had “absolute control from the top.”

He said the authority saw itself as a private company that could do what it wanted.

He said the turnpike authority must change the culture so the staff members understand they essentially are working for a public agency.

Gosselin said he and other board members participated in some international conferences, such as a trip in 2007 to Prague in the Czech Republic to attend the annual meeting of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.

The turnpike authority spent more than $3,000 for hotel rooms in Prague for turnpike authority board members and staffers.

Gosselin defended the trip. He said he learned a lot and that he believes the spending was “appropriate.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Tom Bell — 699-6261
[email protected]

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.