On June 20, the Maine Turnpike Authority’s five top executives and four of their consultants had one of their “management dinners,” which the authority has held every month or so for eight years. The men went across Portland from authority headquarters near the turnpike to one of Maine’s most expensive restaurants, Eve’s, in the Portland Harbor Hotel on Fore Street. After cocktails, they had lobster, filet mignon (“pan-seared, pepper-crusted, locally raised,” the menu says), and other delicacies, washed down with a $295 bottle of Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1999, the restaurant’s most expensive wine, a red Bordeaux (“highly complex flavors, hints of truffle and licorice,” says a wine guide). They also drank a $95 Treana and several other pricey bottles listed on their bill, a copy of which the Phoenix obtained and which was confirmed by turnpike officials. The total, with tip, came to $1342.28 or, on average, $149 per person.
A consultant, Vincent Leonetti, picked up the tab, and, he told the Phoenix, is not asking for reimbursement. A former South Jersey Transportation Authority official, he was recently hired to give advice on renovations to the service plazas. The turnpike pays him $100 an hour. He has a contract for up to 18 months, with no maximum total. So far this year, he has received $5918, the authority says.
On its face, it would seem impossible or foolish for state-agency employees to accept the gift of this expensive meal from a contractor. Strict ethics rules set up to thwart conflicts of interest — or public perception of conflicts of interest — prevent state employees from accepting any gifts from consultants or anyone else. They are reminded of this in a memo each holiday season, says Edward Karass, the state controller, who oversees state-government expenditures from his office in Augusta.
But the Maine Turnpike Authority is different from many other state agencies. It doesn’t have to abide by the normal state ethics rules. And, according to its spokesman, Dan Paradee, it doesn’t have its own code of financial ethics.
The June 20 dinner was, in fact, an exception. Usually such dinners are paid for – albeit indirectly – from the turnpike authority's coffers. That practice, too, separates the turnpike from most other state agencies, where official spending for dinners is subject to strict guidelines.
The way these dinners generally work, turnpike officials say, is that another consultant who was at the meal at Eve’s, Roland Lavallee, of HNTB Corporation, is the one who pays. But then the authority reimburses HNTB for the food, including meals eaten by the HNTB executives present. (The booze, though, is covered by HNTB, says Lavallee, making it another — and regular — gift to the turnpike personnel that employees in other state agencies would be ethics-bound to refuse.)
But when the Maine Turnpike Authority pays, who actually shells out? Since the authority is entirely financed by tolls, those of us who toss our coins into the toll baskets are the people who pay. We threw in $84 million last year, when the tolls jumped considerably. (Or we bought E-ZPasses.) They are spending our money on these dinners.
Usually, the dinners are not so lavish as the feast on June 20, according to the authority. In 2005, 10 management dinner meetings took place, and “HNTB paid for all of the meals and was reimbursed by the authority,” the agency says in a statement. The total cost was $2,867 or $287 per meeting, at which six to nine people attended, the statement adds. This year, seven management dinner meetings have been held so far, with six to nine people attending each, and HNTB has been reimbursed for six meetings to the tune of $1719 or $246 each, the authority says. The cost for those events averages out to $30 to $40 per person. The seventh, with the $149-a-head bill, was the one at Eve’s paid by Leonetti.
Ethics regulations absolutely prohibit state officials from indulging in dinners like these, according to state controller Karass. As it declares in his office’s manual for state employees, Maine’s government normally pays for meals only when they are required by work-related travel, are at the “most economical price,” and if they are “critical and necessary for state business.” Contractors asking for expense reimbursement also must comply with these restrictions. As a rule, the limit on a dinner is $18 per person. Karass says that if a workday is extended, “department-wide meetings may in fact include a meal,” but they cannot be “regular and frequent.”
When asked if the turnpike’s management dinner meetings would be permitted under state regulations, Karass answers flatly, “No.”
But he emphasizes that the turnpike authority does not come under his jurisdiction: “They’re pretty much independent. We don’t really have a periscope into what they are doing.”
Indeed, although the Maine Turnpike Authority was, in 1941, a creation of the Legislature, and its board is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, and legislators must approve its budget, it is in “a unique situation” within state government, according to its spokesman Paradee, in that it receives no state or federal tax dollars. In state-government nomenclature, it is known as an "independent agency."