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AUGUSTA — The Senate chairman of the Legislature’s oversight committee may take the unheard of step of using the committee’s subpoena power to investigate spending at the Maine Turnpike Authority.
State Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said the Government Oversight Committee is “unsatisfied” with some the MTA’s answers to questions raised by a recent 88-page report by the Office of Program Evaluation & Government Accountability.
He particularly cited the authority’s lack of complete records on how it spent $157,000 in gift certificates between 2005 and 2007. He said the committee also has more questions about $900,000-plus spent on travel, including bills at three hotel chains during the same period.
Katz said the committee, which was scheduled to meet Feb. 18 with MTA officials, will first ask for the records in writing. If they are not received within two weeks, the committee will consider using its subpoena powers to demand them.
According to Beth Ashcroft, the director of OPEGA, those powers have never been used in the seven years they have been available to the Government Oversight Committee.
The Maine State Law and Legislative Reference Library said its preliminary search of the records did not turn up any case of a legislative committee using subpoena powers.
“I think it’s fair to say the oversight committee has not in the past lived up to its potential, and we have the opportunity to take it in different direction,” Katz said.
In the years the committee has had subpoena powers, it was chaired by Democrats. With the Republican sweep of the Legislature last November, that changed, and now all committees are headed by Republicans.
Meanwhile, most if of not all of of the state’s quasi-public agencies, including the MTA and the Maine State Housing Authority, are run by boards or directors appointed by Democratic governors. Republican Gov. Paul LePage will not have the authority to appoint members of those agencies until their terms run out later in his own term.
Scott Tompkins, spokesman for the MTA, said, “We have been forthcoming to OPEGA and the committee and we’ll be more than happy to continue this process and provide what they are looking for.”
As for how the gift certificates were spent, however, he said that the MTA has made a thorough review of its records “and (the information does) not exist. That’s a fact.”
Sen. Margaret Craven, a Lewiston Democrat, said that while some of the MTA bookkeeping “seems sloppy,” she objected to the “tenor” of some of the Republican questions to the MTA at a previous hearing.
She said most of the gift certificates were given to local and community groups, such as chambers of commerce and youth groups.
One of the most strident critics of the MTA has been fellow committee member Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, who said the MTA was one of the most vocal opponents of creating OPEGA, which he had championed.
“Now we see why,” Trahan said.
“They claim to be highly professional and well-organized,” Trahan said. “If that’s the case, there’s virtually no way they cannot know where this money was spent.”
He said at the Friday committee meeting he will ask the attorney general’s office to rule on whether the MTA has the legal right to hire outside lobbyists to represent the agency at the Statehouse.
The OPEGA report cites $577,000 in costs over a five-year period, “primarily” for lobbying.
Tompkins said only about 25 percent of that was for lobbying; the balance was for legal fees to the same law firm that does some of its lobbying, Preti Flaherty Beliveau & Pachios.
He also said the MTA has its own legal opinion supporting its right to hire lobbyists.
John Christie the publisher and senior reporter of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism organization based in Hallowell. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and online at pinetreewatchdog.org.