AUGUSTA (AP) – A restaurant tab two months ago for nine Maine Turnpike Authority managers and advisers that averaged $149 per person has raised questions about ethics and expense policies governing independent state agencies.

A consultant for the turnpike agency, which has no ethics code for staff members, picked up the $1,342 tab for dinner at Eve’s restaurant at the Portland Harbor Hotel. The turnpike’s executive director, Paul Violette, said he regrets the high cost and is working to develop a code of ethics.

Mainline state agencies such as the departments of Education and Health and Human Services follow uniform ethics and reimbursement rules intended to avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest. Independent agencies, however, have a hodgepodge of standards, and some suggest that uniform policies might help them avoid situations that are unethical or wasteful.

“It bears looking into,” said Senate President Beth Edmonds, D-Freeport. “It’s somewhat surprising to me” that policies vary so much, she said.

The University of Maine System’s meals policy sets dollar limits. The Maine Municipal Bond Bank and the Maine Health and Higher Education Facilities Authority provide no limits but say charges must be “reasonable” and supported by receipts.

Turnpike officials said their June 20 meal was a legitimate working dinner attended by Violette, four of his managers and four consultants.

It was “cheaper and more efficient to do it this way” than to meet at headquarters on company time, said turnpike spokesman Dan Paradee. Consultants provide free after-hours advice, he said, and it’s easier to have turnpike officials gather for dinner than to pull them away from their work for a daytime meeting.

The dinner’s cost was unusually high, Violette said. Paradee said 10 such dinners in 2005 cost a total of $2,700 compared to $1,342 for the single June outing this year.

Edmonds said the legislative committees that oversee independent agencies should document each one’s ethics and reimbursement policies and report their findings to legislative leaders for further evaluation.

House Republican Leader David Bowles of Sanford agreed, saying it would seem to be “a logical extension” to apply the mainline agencies’ policies to independent agencies.

Some agency heads question such a change. Violette said he sees no need for it and Carl Flora of the Loring Development Authority said such a move “would undermine the independence of agencies like mine.”

State Controller Ed Karass said that regardless of what action the Legislature takes, government officials can stay out of hot water by simply weighing the propriety of their actions beforehand.

“In the end,” Karass said, “it comes down to personal ethics, judgment and common sense.”

Information from: Portland Press Herald,

AP-ES-08-20-06 1251EDT

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