Paul Violette's remorse COMMENT

April 8, 2012

When wrongdoing surfaces and the bad guy says he's sorry you're usually tempted to the cynical "Sure you're sorry, you are sorry you got caught." But in the case of Paul Violette, the longtime CEO of the Maine Turnpike, that's plain wrong. The guy gives every indication of genuine remorse, of feeling very bad about what he did, not just that he was caught.

"What I did was wrong. I am deeply ashamed."

His words to the judge and his letter of course say that repeatedly, and in different ways.

But you can see the sincerity of his remorse also (1) in his acceptance of the charges, (2) his refusal to make excuses, and (3) his unwillingness to lay any blame on others.

He is dead wrong about the (3). Of course others at the Turnpike are also to blame.

Colleagues covered for him. His directors turned a blind eye.

And the accountants and auditors. They keep accounts and do audits precisely to stop the kind of thievery that Violette engaged in so flagrantly. Their whole purpose is to prevent misappropriation of funds.  At the Maine Turnpike they failed dismally in their job when it came to Paul Violette's expenses. They betrayed their trust, and disgraced the Turnpike too.

But that doesn't detract from Violette's responsibility for what he did.  

Violette's letter not only takes full personal responsibility but also perversely provided those who wished him jailed with strong arguments for jailing him. His letter dwells on his proud family heritage: "Dear Justice Cole, I am a product of my family, my region and my religion and the proud son of Elmer H and Marcella Berlanger Violette... The Violettes founded the town of Van Buren in the mid-1770s etc".

On and on as if to underline his aristocratic status.

At the sentencing hearing the state's prosecuting attorney Leanne Robbin used that against him saying he had a "sense of entitlement" and that "it shows that he views himself as special and deserving of special treatment."

In a nation which prides itself on equality before the law you don't tell the judge how special you are.

There's a jarring note there too in the claims of being taught the virtues of modesty while dwelling on your distinguished forebears.

"Public service"

There's also this in his letter to the sentencing judge: "Among my earliest memories are my parents' and grandparents' commitment and dedication to public service... I have struggled to come to terms with how I could have deviated so far from my personal values instilled by my family and my commitment to public service. My parents clearly valued public service as a means to help society rather than oneself...

Violette is suggesting with the use of this term "public service" that there is something special about working for a government agency like the Maine Turnpike. It serves the public, sure, but so does the Sunoco gas station and the Burger King just off the Turnpike.  They thrive or die depending on how well they serve the public.

Their different ownership doesn't detract from the fact that all work to satisfy various public needs and all earn income from public purchases of the goods and services they provide. Thievery by a chief executive of Sunoco or Burger King is just as much thievery and just as morally reprehensible and subject to legal sanction as thievery from the state owned Turnpike.

Does anyone these days seriously think that people with jobs at government agencies can be expected to live to a higher moral standard than people in the private sector? They're all human, with human strengths and weaknesses. They are all both self-interested and public spirited in varying degree. How they behave will depend in part on their personal moral standards but also to a considerable degree on the constraints they face (whether those those accountants and auditors are wimps or people of substance) and the incentives they have (no stock options or performance bonuses unfortunately at a state Turnpike).

Socialist notion of government work being the work of the angels

In the quoted passages Violette is espousing the socialist notion that there's something especially noble about working for a government agency. And perhaps that socialist mistake is part of his problem. In an investor owned operation your customers usually have more alternatives suppliers of service to choose among, and so as a CEO you're more disciplined to focus on their needs week in and week out. That's what drives real public service.

And you have more direct feedback from your investors who expect returns on their investment. And often there's a stock price to track investors' evaluation of your performance. There's a "bottom line" as the accountants say. Customers, competitors and investors keep you highly focussed on how well you are serving the public.

In a government operation the objectives are way more fuzzy.

And without the objective criteria of success or failure of business, there's necessarily more self-assessment.

Government agencies are always offering themselves self-congratulations.

Paul Violette was CEO at the Turnpike 26 years and for many of those years he did a good job (I thought.) As well as day to day matters he was in charge of several major initiatives - transitioning from a ticket or trip toll system to point tolling, introducing electronic tolling, 3rd laning virtually the whole length of the Turnpike.

I enjoyed hearing from him on these projects and found his enthusiasm uplifting. He advocated them effectively and apparently managed them well at least through about 2005.

He changed around 2005 or so

Somewhere around that time he seemed to change.

He had been rarely challenged or subject to much questioning or criticism - at least not until the York toll plaza reconstruction broke the pattern. One theory is he'd had it so good, so long, he didn't know how to handle his first serious outside challenge. Mid-decade he withdrew into himself, wouldn't take phone calls, wouldn't meet. He became inaccessible.

The arrogant aristocratic socialist in him asserted itself.

Now he seems over-chastened - so remorseful, that you wonder how he can reclaim the self-confidence to recover. Hopefully he still can. But he'll have to rethink the awful aristocratic socialism that permeates his letter to the Judge - editor.

TOLLROADSnews 2012-04-08

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