Letters to the Editor
Read what our readers have to say about Maine.
Trouble at the Turnpike
Thank you for the opportunity to respond to Colin Woodard’s critique of the Maine Turnpike Authority (MTA) Board of Directors (“Cleaning Up the Turnpike,” September 2011).
Mr. Woodard should have interviewed not just the Turnpike’s most vocal critics, but at least one of the seven MTA Board members whom he targeted. His article might then have benefited from accuracy and balance.
It should first be noted that the review by Maine’s Office of Program Evaluation & Government Accountability (OPEGA) was largely positive. OPEGA found the MTA compliant with state and federal regulations, its bonding resolution and standard industry practices on issues ranging from debt level, operating surplus and construction services procurement, to accounting principles, agency oversight, and governance.
The few areas OPEGA flagged for improvement — sole-source contracting, budgeting, cash transfers to Maine DOT, and travel and meal expenditures — were addressed comprehensively and collaboratively this past spring in a reform bill jointly crafted by the board, by Turnpike staff, and by legislative leaders. That left one burning question: How did misconduct of the MTA’s former executive director go undetected by the board?
The MTA is similar in size to a large savings bank, processing millions of transactions annually through 120,000 customer accounts. The Turnpike’s financial activities are controlled by bond resolutions that parallel governmental bank regulations.
Banks, however, are further monitored by internal auditors who randomly check financial transactions to test for policy compliance. They also recommend procedural corrections whenever they find a deficiency. Although employed by the bank, internal auditors report straight to the bank’s directors, who in turn are responsible to shareholders and depositors. The Turnpike has never until now had the benefit of compliance auditing.
The financial misconduct Mr. Woodard cited occurred in small doses over a span of years. During that time, the board commissioned regular annual audits by responsible public accounting firms known for their diligence and integrity. MTA accounts were also monitored daily by the bondholder trustee. Still, the financial misdeeds were undetected by the auditing firms, the trustee, and the board.
The misconduct first came to light as OPEGA’s team of auditors scoured more than eight hundred thousand transactions, but it was the later board-directed forensic audit that revealed the full scope of the malfeasance. The MTA Board immediately addressed the situation by implementing improved procedures — including a compliance audit component — to prevent recurrence. The board then filed a civil complaint seeking restitution.
A balanced account of these events would have given the board at least some credit for decisive action in providing the transparency and accountability needed to restore the public’s trust in the Maine Turnpike Authority.
Maine Turnpike Authority
Colin Woodard Responds:
My article — which included a long interview with interim Turnpike director Peter Mills — concludes that the authority is indeed on the road to recovery. However, in the wake of the OPEGA report, a wide range of sources — Republicans, Democrats, legislators, editorialists, and columnists — have argued that Mr. Conley and Mr. Gosselin should have resigned from the Turnpike’s board, views expressed by several sources in my piece. In their defense, these longstanding board members argue that they couldn’t have been aware of Mr. Violette’s misdeeds because they hadn’t yet seen fit to hire an internal auditor, despite being the size of a large savings bank, and having endured an embarrassing expense scandal in 2005. They also imply that they should not be held responsible for more visible long-term issues — sole-source contracting, the conflicted dual role of HNTB, the tolerance of a system that ensured no cash transfers would ever be made to the state — because they corrected them after the scandal broke. I regret not having had the pleasure of questioning them on these points for the article, but look forward to doing so in detail at the gentlemen’s convenience.
A Somber Anniversary
In response to your question: “Where were you . . . ?” On September 11 ten years ago, I was aboard Victory Chimes, anchored in Bucks Harbor. I have sailed so many years that the Chimes is a second home to me. I had gone ashore early and was on the general store phone with a friend in Castine. I could hear the background television voices, when suddenly my friend cried out and began to speak of the horror she was seeing and hearing. I rushed back to the dock where the news had spread. As we climbed back aboard the schooner we could hear
the radio Captain Files had brought out on deck. Even in memory, it is still so hard to absorb the contrasts of the unbelievable terror we were hearing, with the peace and beauty of the Maine coast.
There was a sense of inter-dependence that I believe helped all of us to bear the experience as the week brought us closer to the realities we would face as we returned home. For me, home is Boston, the terrorists’ second launch point. As we sailed into Rockland Harbor to anchor on Saturday morning, Captain Files raised to the mizzen the biggest American flag he had on board. No one had to say anything. The flag and the tears were their own message.
—June A. Knowles
Where In Maine?
Our Maine vacation wouldn’t be the same without a trek to Screw Augur Falls in Newry, just within the borders of Grafton Notch State Park. Your photographer captures this wonderful waterfall from a unique perspective. It’s a geologic marvel, for sure, with its sinuous route wrought in rock. However, its true treasure is enjoyed back upstream where our girls (even the jaded teenager) love to frolic in the frosty pools that cascade toward the chasm, where we all savor lunch in a secluded picnic spot by the river in the shade of birch trees, and where dad gets to “channel” Thoreau while contemplating a brook trout in the eddy of a rock strewn pool.