PORTLAND, Maine — The former longtime director of the Maine Turnpike Authority was sentenced Friday to 3½ years in prison for stealing tens of thousands of dollars from the agency to pay for upscale hotels, meals at fancy restaurants and spa treatments.
At his sentencing in Cumberland County Superior Court, Paul Violette apologized to family and friends, turnpike staff and the public for breaking their trust.
"What I did was wrong," he said. "I am deeply ashamed."
Justice Roland Cole said Violette was a good citizen who showed remorse, took responsibility and made restitution, but said none of that can make up for the breach of public trust. He imposed a seven-year sentence but suspended half of it and ordered Violette to serve 1,500 hours of public service within two years of his release.
Violette, 56, will begin serving his sentence next Friday.
He pleaded guilty in February to a charge of theft for unauthorized use of turnpike gift cards and using turnpike authority credit cards for personal travel, meals and other expenses in Maine, Massachusetts, Canada, Bermuda, the Caribbean and Europe.
A former legislator from a highly regarded political family from northern Maine, Violette headed the Maine Turnpike Authority for 23 years before resigning last year amid allegations of lavish spending and misappropriation of funds. The authority is a quasi-governmental agency that oversees the 109-mile Maine Turnpike.
Following Violette's arrest, the Maine Turnpike Authority filed a lawsuit accusing him of misusing nearly $500,000 in turnpike funds in the form of gift cards, credit card charges and vacation and sick leave pay to which he wasn't entitled. The complaint said Violette was overpaid by $161,000 for unused vacation time and sick leave after falsely claiming he hadn't taken any vacation or sick days over his tenure.
The lawsuit was later settled with the turnpike receiving $430,000 to cover its financial losses. Violette paid $155,000 of his own money, which was his estimated net worth, with two insurance companies paying the rest.
Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin asked Cole to sentence Violette to five years, the maximum under a reached plea agreement.
She said Violette abused his power through arrogance and a sense of entitlement by not accounting for use of his vacation and sick time, not requesting preapproval for trips abroad, directing his staff not to talk to turnpike authority board members without his approval and ultimately helping himself to up to $230,000 in Maine Turnpike gift cards while making more than $100,000 in salary.
"He took that position and used it to enrich himself, and that's why we're here today," Robbin said.
Violette's attorney, Peter DeTroy, asked that his client serve one year in prison, calling it a "fair and equitable" sentence. Violette's crimes didn't destroy the lives of other people and there is "zero chance" for repeat behavior, DeTroy said.
"A long sentence does nothing in the long run," he said. "Perhaps it temporarily salves some public anger, but in the long run does nothing of any benefit."
Violette told Cole he alone was responsible for his actions and that he didn't want his behavior to sully the reputation of the Maine Turnpike Authority or any public servant.
"I am mortified by my actions and their painful and damaging effect on others," he said.
Although Violette has lost his financial assets, he is still entitled to a state pension of more than $5,000 a month.
Coincidentally, Gov. Paul LePage on Friday signed a bill into law that allows judges to revoke the pensions of public employees convicted of committing crimes on the job. The legislation was proposed in response to Violette's case, but it is not retroactive and won't apply to Violette.