PORTLAND — Less than three months on the job as acting executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, Peter Mills has taken corporate credit cards away from most employees, changed the bidding process on contracts and implemented restrictions on employee travel. But Mills says more can be done to make the agency that oversees the 109-mile Maine Turnpike fiscally prudent and transparent.
The former state senator stepped into the hot seat March 17 following the departure of former longtime director Paul Violette, who resigned amid criticism about turnpike finances, lavish spending and his leadership.
People needn't worry about extravagance under Mills' watch. He's somewhat embarrassed by the spaciousness of his office, with its large desk, couch, easy chairs and wide-screen TV. When he was hired, he agreed to work for $2,000 a week with no benefits; Violette was making $128,400 in salary plus $29,179 in benefits and a car.
Mills is determined to restore public confidence in the agency before his contract ends in September. He said he'd be willing to work longer, if he's asked to do so.
"My theory about public faith is you have to go out and earn it," said Mills, a lawyer from Cornville who twice ran unsuccessfully to be the Republican candidate for governor.
Mills' appointment is one piece of the puzzle to make the quasi-public agency accountable and transparent, said Rep. Richard Cebra, who is chairman of the Legislature's Transportation Committee. With former Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Daniel Wathen ready to take the helm as the authority's chairman and new legislation that provides more legislative oversight over the agency, the darkest days are in the past, he said.
"It's a new era and a new day at the Maine Turnpike Authority," he said.
The Maine Turnpike Authority manages a toll highway that serves as the gateway to Maine and handles more than 60 million vehicles per year. It has 470 employees and annual revenues of more than $100 million.
The agency came under attack earlier this year with the release of a report from the Legislature's Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability. The report said the authority was generally well-run and fiscally stable, but questioned its relationship with an engineering firm, how it managed its service contracts, how it calculated its operating budget and its policies for travel and meal expenses.
But what drew the wrath of legislators and the public were reports of lavish spending and purchases of more than $160,000 of gift cards and certificates for upscale hotels, restaurants and other places.
Violette, who resigned in early March after 23 years on the job, said he gave the cards away to charitable organizations and trade groups, but he could not document where they went. Legislators were later told it appeared Violette used some of the cards, including spa services, a down payment toward a $1,500 tuxedo and a Christmas holiday getaway for family members.
The matter has been referred to the state attorney general's office for further investigation.
Besides changing the culture of the authority itself, Wathen said the culture of the board needs to change. Wathen, who is scheduled to be confirmed as board chairman on Tuesday, said the function of the board and of the agency's executive director need to be clearly defined.
"The CEO of the organization probably exercised a bit too much authority and independence from the board," Wathen said. "That's a known problem with for-profit boards and non-profit boards and governmental boards and everything else. You can become captive to the CEO, which is not a desirable state of affairs. The board is the boss in the final analysis, not the other way around."
A bill aimed at turnpike operations should also bring about positive changes, legislative leaders say.
The new law requires the executive director to regularly report to legislators, while giving the Legislature access to the agency's budget and control over its operating budget. It also calls for the agency to share 5 percent of its operating revenues with the Maine Department of Transportation.
"For too long the authority was its own little kingdom over on the side somewhere and was insulated from any kind of public review or accountability," said Sen. Roger Katz, who as chairman of the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee grilled Violette and other agency employees during a hearing in April.
Still, he cautioned that there could be more black eyes ahead for the agency following the investigation by the attorney general's office.
"I don't think the story is over yet," Katz said. "It's unclear where the investigation will lead, but there are real questions about who was involved and who received the improper benefit of those purchases. There's certainly another chapter to be written."