Driving in circles

By AL DIAMON  |  April 27, 2011

I have Peter Mills's E-ZPass.

Mills is the acting executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority. His pass allows him to ride on the toll road for free.

Or it would, if he had it.

Which he doesn't, because I do.

A friend of mine found the gizmo on a Portland street a few days ago, tucked in an unsealed envelope with Mills's address on the front. My friend passed it on to me, thinking I'd be interested in such a discovery.

I am. Given past practices at the pike authority (before Mills arrived in March to clean things up), I suspect I could emulate former executive director Paul Violette and use the pass not only for toll-free rides, but also for international travel, accommodations at luxury hotels, pricey meals at high-end restaurants, and spa treatments. By the time the MTA figured out who was running up the charges, I'd have been fitted for a $1500 tuxedo, like the one Violette ordered on the authority's dime.

Except I have no use for a tux, and my local bar isn't interested in E-ZPassing me a few rounds of beer. So, I opted for honesty and called Mills to return it.

He said he probably dropped the transponder getting out of his car, but didn't notice its absence because he's been paying his own tolls in order to meet pike employees.

I asked Mills if the MTA had really changed its culture of entitlement, since an audit and subsequent investigation by a legislative committee revealed that between 2004 and 2010, Violette had purchased $200,000 in gift cards with pike funds and used them mostly for stuff that seemed to have no relation to his job. Like that tux. And those spa treatments. And holiday getaways. He'd also charged the authority for lavish monthly meals with MTA staffers and board members, each of which cost enough to keep an average Maine family fed for six months. (See "E-ZPass on Ethics," by Lance Tapley, August 4, 2006.)

Mills isn't behaving like that. To date, his worst transgression seems to be a failure to hang on to his E-ZPass. But what's more concerning is that little has changed in the insular turnpike power structure. When this mess finally blows over, the good-old-boy network that runs the highway will still be in place, as will many of the slipshod management practices that allowed Violette to live in the style of a villain in a James Bond novel.

Consider the facts. The same turnpike authority board that failed to notice Violette's questionable spending — even though he was treating its members to trips abroad, resort weekends, and dinners that cost more than Governor Paul LePage's Jamaican vacation — is still in place. Once LePage gets back in work mode, it will still take him years to replace a majority of these slugs, because MTA board members serve terms longer than the governor's. And there's no guarantee new appointees will be any more alert to impropriety than the previous assortment of political hacks.

Then there's the pike staff. Violette hired them, and they were loyal to him. When two key executives discovered in 2005 what their boss was up to, they confronted him. And that was it. They didn't tell the board. They didn't go public. They just assumed he'd changed his ways. Even though the reckless — and possibly illegal — spending continued.

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  Topics: Talking Politics , Maine Turnpike Authority, Peter Mills, Paul Violette,  More more >
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