AUGUSTA — A member of the Maine Turnpike Authority told a legislative government oversight panel Friday that some revelations stemming from a recent investigation of the agency were an "embarrassment."
It remains to be seen whether that admission and the MTA's commitment to change its practices will curb increasing momentum in Augusta to change and possibly eliminate the quasi-governmental agency, privatize it or give the state greater control over its revenues.
Lucien Gosselin, the authority's executive vice president, argued during an exhaustive public hearing on Friday that such measures were unnecessary. But several of the panelists and members of the public seemed unsatisfied with MTA assurances that it embraced the recommendations outlined in the watchdog report.
Republican members of the joint committee grilled Gosselin and Paul Violette, the authority's executive director, about extravagant travel expenditures, employee salaries, contributions to outside agencies, potential conflicts with its engineering firm and lobbying activity.
Sen. David Trahan, R-Lincoln, led much of the questioning. Trahan at times suggested that the authority had inappropriately used lobbyists and meddled in Augusta politics. Trahan also said the group had recently deployed its influence to urge members of the oversight panel to pull punches during the hearing.
"I've heard throughout this process to be careful taking on the MTA," Trahan said. "And all through this process, we've had your lobbyists telling us to not to make too much of this report. ... My point is, call the dogs off. I'm asking you not to be a political organization."
The MTA has been accused of political activity since the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability showed that the authority had donated to several groups such as the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, GrowSmart Maine, the Maine Center for Economic Policy and the Maine Better Transportation Association.
The authority has argued that it donated those funds for outreach purposes.
But Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, in her written testimony, alleged that the $403,000 the MTA gave to the Maine Better Transportation Association could have been used to oppose and support legislative candidates.
The MBTA is a nonpartisan nonprofit that engages in advocacy for some bond proposals facing voter referendum. Lobbying disclosure forms show no contributions to political action committees during 2010.
Maria Fuentes, executive director for MBTA, in an e-mail denied contributing to PACs to influence candidate elections.
Violette also disputed claims that the authority engaged in political activity and sought influence through its donations to groups with ties to political organizations.
"We don't do that," he said. "We're not allowed to do that."
Violette and Gosselin also answered questions about a report from a conservative advocacy group showing a 72-percent increase in MTA payroll over a 12-year period.
Several committee members wondered why one in three toll collectors made $60,000 or more per year, as reported in the study by the Maine Heritage Policy Center.
The MTA has previously called the study misleading, and on Friday, Rep. Donald Pilon, D-Saco, said there was "a huge discrepancy" between the payroll data the panel had received from the turnpike authority and the policy center's report.
On Friday, Violette acknowledged that MTA employees were well-compensated and argued that they should be or the MTA would risk losing them.
During his testimony, Violette also said he'd attended a Maine Heritage Policy Center luncheon in which the group had advocated for privatizing the turnpike.
Chris Cinquemani, a spokesman for the center, said the group hadn't taken that position. The center's focus, he said, was drawing attention to the MTA's wasteful practices.
Those practices dominated the hearing, which featured testimony from Severin Beliveau, a lawyer with the firm Preti, Flaherty. Beliveau is considered one of the most powerful lobbyists in Augusta, and his firm's involvement in lobbying activity for the MTA has spurred speculation about the authority's political reach.
Beliveau told the panel that the MTA's lobbying activity was perfectly acceptable, and that more government or quasi-governmental agencies should follow suit to save money.
Gosselin told the panel that lobbying was necessary because the authority had a "vested interest" in what happens at the State House.
Questions still remain about the authority's relationship with its engineering contractor, HNTB. The watchdog report recommended that the the turnpike authority should redefine its relationship with the national company to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
During the hearing, several panelists described the MTA-HTNB relationship as cozy, noting that the contractor's employees had received trips and hotel rooms on the MTA's dime. Other members were more concerned that HTNB advised the authority about when it should undertake capital projects, yet was the same company that would ultimately get the construction contracts.
The oversight panel adjourned without taking action on the watchdog report, but Trahan suggested after the hearing that the panel was going to take a hard look at the MTA.
"We're going to do something, either here or in the Legislature," Trahan said.
Several bills have been submitted to bring about change in the MTA. One, sponsored by Sen. Douglas Thomas, R-Somerset, would create a panel to review who controls the agency and look at merging it with the Maine Department of Transportation or privatizing the MTA.