April 24, 2013

Government leaders discuss ethics

By Dennis Hoey dhoey@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND -- Greater transparency, stricter financial accountability and open communication lines with employees are what Daniel Wathen believes will set the Maine Turnpike Authority on a path toward respectability.

Wathen, a former chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, spoke Wednesday about the lessons he learned from the scandal surrounding former Maine Turnpike Authority Executive Director Paul Violette.

Wathen, who is chairman of the Maine Turnpike Authority's board of directors, made his comments after an ethics panel discussion at the University of Maine School of Law in Portland.

"Corruption in government, at least here in Maine, happens so rarely. I just think we have to keep an eye out for it. We're a small state. We all know when something is wrong," Wathen said.

Wathen was joined on the panel by Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, former Maine Attorney General William Schneider, and Jennifer Miller, an attorney and executive vice president of Sappi Fine Papers of America.

The fifth annual governance and ethics symposium was held Wednesday afternoon at the law school on Deering Avenue.

The symposium topic was "Governance, Ethics and Accountability in the Public and Private Sectors: Lessons Learned, Not Learned and Still to be Learned."

Violette was sentenced in April 2012 to 3 1/2 years in prison for misusing as much as $230,000 in agency funds.

He used those funds over a period of seven years to stay at five-star hotels and to eat meals at high end restaurants in the United States and overseas.

In an interview after the forum, Wathen said he and the authority's new executive director, Peter Mills, have implemented a series of cultural changes they believe will prevent another scandal from occurring.

"One of the things I learned is a financial audit is not the same as a fraud audit," Wathen said. Under the current system, he said, all bills and credit card charges are looked at by authority officials.

Wathen said he, instead of the executive director, now sets the agenda for board meetings .

"If something is bothering me, I want to be able to talk about it at a meeting," Wathen said.

Wathen said he and Mills have established an open-door policy, making them both more accessible to authority employees as well as to members of the public. He said the authority now operates an anonymous whistleblower hotline.

Panelists were asked by the audience if state employees had someone they could turn to if an ethical question arose at work. Janet Mills said there is no one like that in state government.

"I don't think we have an ethics police officer," she said.

Mills said the best ethical standard for government employees to follow may be one suggested during the forum by Wathen.

"Would I do this if my mother was watching?" Wathen said.

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