The Maine Turnpike Authority is planning to sue former executive director Paul Violette, seeking to recoup hundreds of thousands of dollars he allegedly spent on himself or on extravagant items tangentially related to the job.

The authority’s new executive director, Peter Mills, said Monday that the authority expects to take legal action as early as today, though he would not say how much the agency would be seeking to recover.

Violette’s attorney, Peter DeTroy, would say only that he expects the suit to seek significantly more than the roughly $200,000 spent on gift cards for high-end hotels and restaurants in North America and Europe, most of which, investigators say, cannot be accounted for. There also were accusations that an authority credit card was used to rack up thousands of dollars in personal charges and that many charges related to authority business were excessively extravagant.

“They’ve had an investigation done,” DeTroy said of the turnpike authority. “Based on the information they have, the fact they’re bringing a civil case doesn’t shock me. … Having said that, I think the political context puts a lot of pressure on them to pursue something publicly.”

Violette resigned in March after 23 years leading the agency that is responsible for maintaining the Maine Turnpike and overseeing its budget. His departure coincided with the release of a report by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which found hundreds of thousands of charges that could not be accounted for or seemed unrelated to authority business.

In hearings before the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, Violette was asked about $200,000 in gift cards he had purchased with authority funds, ostensibly to donate to other groups, but for which there were no records.

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, according to evidence presented at the committee hearing.

Gift cards also were used at expensive hotels in France, Italy, the Czech Republic, Canada and Bermuda.

Violette refused to answer questions, citing his constitutional right to not incriminate himself.

The Attorney General’s Office is in the midst of a criminal probe, and the turnpike authority launched its own internal audit.

Investigators with the Attorney General’s Office are looking closely at the OPEGA report and what the turnpike has uncovered, and they have subpoena power to gather more information, DeTroy said. He said he expects that any criminal case will be brought before the end of the year.

Violette probably will seek to put the civil case on hold while there is the potential for criminal charges, DeTroy said, though that would be up to a judge.

The civil lawsuit probably will be filed in Cumberland County Superior Court, the jurisdiction that includes the authority’s Portland headquarters, Mills said. He said he would provide more details once the lawsuit is filed.

“There’s a strong desire on the part of the board to behave in open and transparent way,” Mills said. “If and when there’s a filing, it will be in plain english.”

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, who chairs the government oversight committee, said he was not surprised that the authority was seeking to recoup the public’s money and that Mills had indicated as much early in his tenure.

“I think based upon what we heard, they’re doing exactly the right thing,” Katz said. “I think the principle is important. If there is a misuse of public money, $5,000 or $500,000, the board is wise to try to get it back.”

Katz said the legislative inquiry went back only to 2004 and that a civil suit could look at years prior to that.

DeTroy said most of the lawsuit is likely to cover allegations brought up during he committee hearing and through the OPEGA probe, but there are a few additions. He would not elaborate.

“Of course, we have the criminal case hanging over us, which makes it very hard for us to make public comments responding to a civil case,” he said.

 


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