Wednesday, December 4, 2013
David B. Offer
The authority lost that confidence in January when a report by the Legislature's Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability revealed that between 2005 and 2009 the authority spent nearly $1 million on limousines, fancy hotels, international travel, gourmet meals and costly gifts. That's a lot of toll money that could have been used for highway maintenance.
The resignation of Paul Violette as executive director of the authority was a good first step, and the appointment of former Sen. Peter Mills to serve as the interim director was a sound decision. Mills wasted no time adopting businesslike policies that have long been needed.
That's not enough. The board should follow Violette out the door. Board members may not have been as directly involved in the absurd, lavish spending as Violette, but they share responsibility for the massive misuse of public money.
At a recent hearing of the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee -- which has done an excellent job of following up on the OPEGA report -- Lucien Gosselin, who has been chairman of the authority's Finance Committee since 2004, said he and other board members participated in international conferences, including a trip to Prague in 2007 to attend a conference of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association. That cost thousands of dollars -- $3,000 for hotel rooms alone.
Gosselin told the committee he thinks the spending was "appropriate."
The fact that Gosselin and other board members find nothing wrong with the expenditures is clear proof that the board should be replaced.
Then there was the testimony given to the committee by Gerard Conley Sr., who has been chairman of the board for seven years.
Conley said he was not aware that the authority spent about $200,000 on gift cards for high-end hotels and restaurants between 2004 and 2010. He said he learned about that spending only when informed by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.
That lack of knowledge is inexcusable. If the chairman of the authority's board does not know how hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent, he's not doing his job.
Board members have argued that Violette did not share information with them. I have no reason to doubt that, but that is no excuse. It just shows that the board did not meet its responsibilities to ask questions, supervise and to set policies.
Turnpike Authority directors have many responsibilities, but I can think of none more important than assuring that public money is spent properly.
I have never been a director for a public agency, but I have served on boards of several professional and community groups.
One key responsibility of a board member is reviewing and approving budgets. That means more than rubber-stamp approval. It requires a thorough analysis of finances and questions about income and expenses.
At the authority, that process should have revealed spending on gift cards, travel, lobbying and memberships, all of which are questionable uses of public money.
It is impossible to believe that board members were not aware that the authority had spent nearly $600,000 to hire lobbyists. I have yet to hear a clear explanation of why one government agency should spend public money to lobby another government entity.
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