AUGUSTA — The former head of the Maine Turnpike Authority is facing time in prison as part of a plea agreement with the Maine attorney general’s office after being charged for felony theft.
Executive Director Paul Violette was charged in connection with his use of turnpike gift cards and credit cards for personal travel, meals and other expenses exceeding $10,000 in value, the attorney general’s office announced Thursday. The charge carries a maximum penalty of up to 10 years in prison, a spokeswoman said.
Violette spent 23 years as executive director of the authority until his resignation in March amid allegations of lavish spending and misappropriation of hundreds of thousands of dollars in turnpike money.
Violette has since paid the authority $155,000 of his own money as part of a civil settlement.
Violette intends to plead guilty to the theft charge as a part of a plea agreement with the state, his attorney said Thursday. Violette has agreed to an eight-year sentence, with three of the years being suspended, Peter DeTroy said.
The attorney general’s office declined to comment on the plea agreement or what punishment will be recommended in court as part of the settlement. The agency has requested a plea agreement hearing in Cumberland County Unified Criminal Court and asked that a sentencing hearing be scheduled for 45 to 60 days after the plea.
No hearings have been scheduled yet, said Brenda Kielty, spokeswoman for Attorney General William Schneider.
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta and co-chairman of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee said the criminal charge shows the system works.
“Many people are jaded about state government, but this shows that no matter who you are, even if you are the powerful head of the turnpike authority, you are subject to the same laws as the rest of us,” Katz said.
Katz declined to comment on whether prison time was appropriate, or how much, but he did say the punishment should send a message to others who might violate the public trust.
“I would say that one of the purposes of sentencing is deterrence,” he said.
Dan Morin, spokesman for the Maine Turnpike Authority, said the leaders of the agency have been monitoring the criminal case.
“We think this is just another step toward putting this chapter behind us,” Morin said. “As we have since Mr. Violette left, we’re focusing on improving our operational efficiency and fiscal integrity.”
The Turnpike Authority received a total of $430,000 in restitution in the past several months. That includes $155,000 from Violette. The rest was be split by two bonding companies, Travelers Casualty and CNA Surety. The money went back into general operating revenue for the authority, which generates $106 million in toll revenue each year.
A report by the state Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability that looked at turnpike authority operations and finances raised questions last year about Violette’s use of turnpike money. The authority is a quasi-state agency that runs the 109-mile Maine Turnpike, which carries more than 60 million vehicles a year.
The report questioned Violette’s purchase of hundreds of gift cards for upscale restaurants and hotels. Violette said he gave the cards to civic and charitable groups for fundraisers, but he couldn’t document where they went. Evidence also surfaced that many of the cards were for his personal use.
The authority’s civil lawsuit alleged that Violette misused nearly $500,000 in turnpike money in the form of gift cards, credit card charges and vacation and sick leave pay to which he wasn’t entitled.
From 2003 to 2010, the suit said, Violette charged nearly $25,000 on authority credit cards and redeemed more than $90,000 worth of gift cards for personal travel, hotel and meal expenses on trips in Maine, Florida, Bermuda, Canada, France, Puerto Rico, Spain and Italy.
Violette also was overpaid by $161,000 for unused vacation time and sick leave after falsely claiming he hadn’t taken any vacation or sick days during his 23 years at the agency, the complaint said.
After Violette’s resignation, former legislator Peter Mills was hired to replace him. Mills enacted new policies ensuring fiscal responsibility that took corporate credit cards away from most employees, changed the bidding process on contracts and restricted employee travel.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.
John Richardson — 620-7016