AUGUSTA — A legislative panel on Friday initiated a deeper probe into the Maine Turnpike Authority’s issuance of $157,000 gift certificates, the latest development in a review that could yield sweeping changes to the quasi-governmental agency.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, chairman of the Government Oversight Committee, approved the release of several certified letters to the authority, its business partners and the gift-card issuers. The committee also threatened never-before-used subpoena powers in its quest to determine who received the gift cards for several luxury hotels between 2005 and 2006.

Katz and other panelists also promised to push for more information about other MTA expenditures, no-bid work contracts and its use of lobbyists, just a few of the issues highlighted in an 88-page report by a state watchdog group, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

The report includes more than a half-dozen remedial recommendations that Katz and other panelists said could be folded into legislation to ensure MTA compliance.

Although the latter is included in OPEGA’s follow-up process, members of the committee weren’t satisfied that the authority would change some of its practices unless statutorily required to do so.

According to OPEGA, the authority has agreed to implement most of the report recommendations. Scott Tompkins, a spokesman for the authority, said MTA was willing to work with the Oversight Committee and had already begun adjusting its practices to conform with the report.

However, he said the agency would have to review the extent of the changes that could become law.

The major sticking point appears to be legislative oversight of the MTA budget. While the Legislature oversees the authority’s operating budget, its so-called Reserve Maintenance Budget is not subject to legislative approval.

The MTA has resisted legislative oversight of the maintenance budget. It says allowing the Legislature full control over spending could adversely affect the agency’s bond rating.

However, several agency expenditures questioned by OPEGA were discovered in the maintenance budget. Some of the committee members described those expenses, such as travel, as items that would normally fall under operating expenses.

Committee member Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, one of the most persistent critics of the MTA, wondered if the agency had tucked the questionable items inside the maintenance budget in order to avoid legislative scrutiny.

“I would view that as potentially deceptive,” he said.

After the meeting, Trahan said he was frustrated with the MTA. He was  unconvinced that adopting the OPEGA report would go far enough in changing the authority’s practices. Instead, he said, he wants to overhaul the agency and replace its leadership.

MTA board members, appointed by the governor, elect the executive director. Trahan said he hoped Gov. Paul LePage would consider changes at the top of the agency, which is currently led by Paul Violette.

“I need to know there’s a leader at the top who is going to take these changes seriously,” Trahan said. “Once I see that leadership in place and trust those changes are being done, then I’ll back down.”

Trahan said he’d lost patience with the authority, which has previously been involved in questionable spending practices.

Gift-card mystery

Before directing committee clerks to send registered letters seeking information about the gift cards, Katz said it was the panel’s responsibility to get to the bottom of the mystery.

The gift cards went to several luxury hotels that Katz said made “a Marriott look like a Motel 6.”

“We can’t tell where (the cards) went,” Katz said. “It’s hard to imagine that any business would fail to keep such records for tax purposes. … This is public money. We have an obligation to find out who received it.”

Officials from the MTA have said they don’t have records of the recipients.

Rep. Donald Pilon, D-Saco, was more concerned that the MTA didn’t have formalized agreements with some of its contractors.

“It just boggles my mind that they had this very slipshod operation that was conducted with handshake deals,” Pilon said. “How can I be assured that this is going to be fixed?”

Pilon’s concerns are highlighted in the report, which recommends the agency redefine its relationship with its lead contractor, HNTB. That company advised the authority about when it should undertake capital projects, yet was the same company that would bid on those projects.

The MTA has said the lack of formalized contracts was the result of long-standing relationships with contractors. But Trahan wondered if the “environment facilitated a good ol’ boys’ club.”

The board is weighing other changes to the agency, including reducing the seven-year terms of board members and getting an opinion from the state attorney general about the legality of the agency using outside lobbyists.

The latter issue is significant for Trahan, who doesn’t think the MTA should be allowed to hire outside lobbyists.

“When you blend the politics with the influence and the policy, it’s cause for concern,” he said. “I believe the OPEGA report could be significantly weakened given the political clout that (MTA) has. … We need to keep politics and lobbyists out of these public programs.”

The oversight panel will revisit the MTA report in March.

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