The felling of ex-Maine Piker Paul Violette continues & collateral damage

April 15, 2011
By Peter Samuel

Newspaper, TV, radio and the net out of Poertland Maine are full of new developments in the "Violette scandal" this week even though it's over a month (March 7) since he was forced to resign from his 23 year job as executive director.  Legislators and journalists continue to slowly but steadily unravel a story of personal indulgence at the public's expense.

Today the Portland Press Herald's Tom Bell details Violette charging the Turnpike for:

- $5,533 for lodging at the Black Point Inn in Scarborough ME

- $7,654 for lodging at the Park Hyatt in Chicago for Violette, "board members and others"

- $3,018 for lodging at the Hotel Esplanade Praha, in Prague in the Czech Republic, for Violette, "board members and others

- stays at hotels such as the Castle Hill Inn in Newport RI  at $631/night and the Bellagio in Las Vegas, $654 per night. the Surrey Eastside Manhattan $689/night

- charges on Violette's credit cards including a $1,051 restaurant bill at the Royal River Grillhouse (name corrected from Press-Herald account) in Yarmouth for Violette and "various individuals"

- $7,976 at the Hotel Palais de la Mediterranee in Nice, France

- travel in 2005 to Puerto Rico

- a meal at the Black Point Inn on Prouts Neck, Portland ME in December 2004 cost $4,562

- $3,886 for food and lodging at Portland Harbor Hotel for a "directors meeting and dinner" and a visit by officials from IAG consultants, June 2006

- $2,673 for a "summer soire" for about 40 people at the Saltwater Grille in South Portland

- $1,653 for five visits to Bar Lola, Munjoy Hill, Portland ME with "various individuals"

- $816 for dinner with "various individuals" at The Carlyle, Upper Westside NYC

- $754 for a meal with "various individuals" at the Jean Georges, a posh restaurant in midtown Manhattan

- $2,820 for lodging and meals at Chateau de la Chevre d'Or, Eze Village, Cote d'Azur (corrections), France for Violette and "various individuals"

(as reported by the Portland Press Herald 2011-04-14)

Shock, anger

A senator David Trahan (Repub) is quoted: "I'm shocked that officials could take money away from toll payers so they could go and live high off the hog."

Many will share Trahan's anger.

Differing views on how far Violette violated

Others of course will be more forgiving, or see such anger as naive, contrived, or just plain envy.

Most people at the top of a $100m/year operation live well.

Also, to be fair to Violette we don't know how many "various individuals" the dinners and lodgings were spread over or how many of them were getting legitimate hospitality.

The headline to today's story in the lead Portland newspaper reads: "Turnpike records show spending on hotels, meals topped $200,000: Records show the ex-chief of Maine 's turnpike agency favored high-end facilities while traveling on business."

A less shocking way of looking at it is to note that the $200k was spent over five years: $40,000/year average.

Among chief executives that level of spending on entertainment and lodging probably isn't abnormal.

There are a lot of toll executives out there who entertain at top restaurants and stay at expensive hotels.

In short, Violette is one of many.

IBTTA

Indeed the Washington DC toll industry association IBTTA is well known for staging many of its conferences at expensive hotels in expensive cities. A number of the events listed by OPEGA were IBTTA events.

Not everyone attending these conferences stays at the posh IBTTA conference hotel, but a good number do. Not all eat at the best and most expensive restaurants, but Paul Violette was one of quite a number who delighted in that.

IBTTA has long been criticized by some as too expensive in its conferencing, too high end, catering too much to the big spenders.

One member emailed us today:

"IBTTA says it serves the entire toll community but its membership fees for someone like me are very high. They are several times many other industry organizations.  Also, its fees for conferences are 4 to 5 times those of other technical groups, and its conferences tend to be in high-end hotels in city centers - making it very expensive for those of us on limited budgets to even attend.  In addition, they have 3 to 4 conferences a year (most organizations have only one). Many are in exotic locales. IBTTA, as presently run, invites the kind of publicity Paul is getting."

A lot of Paul Violette's lifestyle was linked to IBTTA in which he was very active, and at one point president of the association.

IBTTA is under pressure following Violette's fall to "tone it down" another source tells us - to stage conferences in more middle range hotels and outside of posh downtowns. Part of the dilemma of the association is that it tries to lives up to the 'International' in its name. That inevitably means conferences held all over the world.

The international model for IBTTA may prove unsustainable.

Attendance at IBTTA events may be in jeopardy now as top executives worry about Maine Turnpike style scandals arising from their own travel and expenses.

Peter vs Paul

Maine Turnpike's new chief executive, Peter Mills is promising a monkish degree of abstinence, saying if he goes anywhere he'll drive his own donkey... well no, his own car. The furthest he plans to go in the next few months is Boston, just down the road.

Expect Peter Mills to stay at an Econolodge and eat highend at a Subway - Peter doing penance for Paul's indulgences.

History

The history of the affair is instructive.

Violette's troubles began when he made enemies in the far south of the state over attempts to locate a new site for a huge new $40m cash+ORT toll plaza.

An up-&-coming young state politician Dawn Hill was annoyed by what she called Violette's arrogance on the York toll plaza project. So last year she sponsored a general inquiry into the Turnpike authority by the state's 'watchdog' Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA).

Issued in January this year the OPEGA report on the Turnpike was not on its face condemnatory. It said that the Turnpike was well managed overall, had a strong planning process and was financially sound - more than can be said of a great many government organizations.

But it found there had been an over-cozy relationship with its longtime engineering consultants, and it alluded to some extravagance and inadequate accounting for senior staff travel and gifts - and it is these which brought Violette down.

Axioms of scandal journalism

It is a first rule of popular journalism that financial scandals must make the most out of the least, that you ignore the more complex big ticket expenditure issues for lots of little easily understood items that will stir the indignation of average readers - even if they add up to small change in dollar amounts relative to total spending.

The second reporters rule is: string-it-out. Make many small iterations of the same theme and the story can be milked for months.

And the more it is strung out, the more slowly it unfolds, the more overall impact the story will have, and the more it will be remembered.

Paul Violette was a made-to-order victim of this kind of water torture journalism.

He even strung out his resignation for a week, telling leaking 'friends' of his intentions days before, and making it about 20 stories rather than one.

His habit throughout has been to sullenly hunker down, and as a result to die a political death of a thousand cuts.

But even with more political nous, a number of others in the industry could be brought down by high living the way Violette was.

From a public policy perspective the sad thing is Paul Violette's self indulgences added up to, maybe a million dollars through his whole career - by no means all of the spending reprehensible.

Yet that million dollar indulgence has got a thousand times more publicity and way more scrutiny than his very questionable commitment to a new cash toll plaza in York. That extravagance would cost forty times as much as 23 years of all those meals and lodgings and entertainments, and have consequences for operational costs of many millions each year thereafter.

Violette's self-indulgences were small change compared to decisions on the future of the Turnpike toll system.

OPEGA report:

http://www.maine.gov/legis/opega/reports/Final%20MTA%20Report%201-25-11.pdf


TOLLROADSnews 2011-04-14


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