PORTLAND — Former Maine Turnpike Authority Executive Director Paul Violette has been charged with felony theft in connection with unaccounted-for gift cards and his use of turnpike credit cards, the attorney general’s office said Thursday.

Violette was charged with obtaining unauthorized control over Maine Turnpike Authority property in the form of gift cards or charges for personal travel, meals and other expenses on turnpike authority credit cards with a total value in excess of $10,000, spokeswoman Brenda Kielty said. The charge carries a maximum penalty of up to 10 years in prison.

Violette’s 23-year reign as the executive director of the Maine Turnpike came crashing down with his resignation in March amid allegations of lavish spending and misappropriation of turnpike funds. Violette last month agreed to pay the authority $155,000 of his own money to settle a civil lawsuit while the attorney general’s office conducted a criminal investigation.

Violette’s attorney, Peter DeTroy, acknowledged the charge Thursday but wasn’t immediately available for further comment. Nobody answered the phone at Violette’s residence in Portland.

The case has been scheduled in court for what is known a “Rule 11” proceeding, Kielty said, a procedure that governs the process of a judge accepting a guilty plea to a felony. In her letter to a court clerk accompanying the charge, Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin wrote that prosecutors are asking that sentencing be scheduled 45 to 60 days after the proceeding.

“This will be a cap plea recommendation,” Robbin wrote.

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 funds. 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 and evidence surfaced that he had used many of the cards for his personal use.

The authority’s civil lawsuit alleged that Violette misused 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 suit said that from 2003 to 2010, 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. The complaint further claimed he spent another $143,479 in “abusive credit card expenses” without evidence they were spent for legitimate businesses purposes.

Violette was also 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.

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