PORTLAND — Paul Violette, who led the Maine Turnpike Authority for 23 years, now has 60 days of freedom before he goes to jail for stealing from the agency to finance a lifestyle of world travel, fine restaurants and five-star hotels.

Violette, 56, pleaded guilty in Cumberland County Unified Court on Thursday to stealing more than $150,000 — possibly as much as $230,000 — from the turnpike authority in the form of credit card purchases and gift cards for personal use from 2003 to 2010. He will be sentenced in two months.

Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin said the state will request as much as five years of prison time in a plea agreement with Violette, for his violation of the public’s trust.

“This is the biggest public corruption case I’ve seen in my 28 years of practice,” Robbin said. “In white-collar cases, any jail time at all is a significant shock to the offender — even one day. The issue is sending a message to the rest of the state of Maine that we’re not going to tolerate abuse of power.”

Violette’s lawyer, Peter DeTroy, said he will ask for a sentence of much less than the five-year cap agreed to by the state, though he expects Violette will have to serve some time behind bars.

“He obviously has a tremendous sense of anxiety about what’s going to happen to him,” DeTroy said after the plea. “Feeling remorse has been there since day one.”

Violette, who resigned as the authority’s executive director last March, stood solemnly before Justice Roland Cole as the judge asked whether he understood the charges and was pleading guilty of his own free will.

“Mr. Violette, you understand under this plea agreement, you could serve the full five years in jail?”

“Yes sir,” Violette said without emotion, his hands clasped in front of him.

Cole allowed Violette to remain free on personal recognizance pending his sentencing.

During the hearing, Robbin listed lavish expenditures that Violette made on the turnpike authority’s tab: $25,000 at the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, including a stay by Violette and his family during winter carnival; trips to Bermuda, Italy and France; a $1,000 advance on a turnpike authority credit card at a casino Puerto Rico; and a $1,000 deposit on a tuxedo at a high-end tailor shop.

Violette sat passively as Robbin read the list. His brother, Tom Violette, sat in the gallery. He accompanied Violette on some of the trips, as did many other family members and friends.

In some cases, Violette collected money from family members and friends to pay for meals or other activities, pocketed the cash, then used turnpike authority gift cards to pay, Robbin said.

DeTroy said after the plea that he could not explain why Violette took advantage of his position, but he said Violette may shed light on that at his sentencing.

The turnpike authority, a quasi-state agency, collects about $100 million a year in toll revenue to maintain and operate the 109-mile Maine Turnpike, which runs from Kittery to Augusta.

Violette’s thefts came to light after the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee asked in 2009 that the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability examine the turnpike authority’s finances.

That analysis and a subsequent audit revealed extensive misuse of gift cards for Violette’s personal use. The attorney general’s office used that information to build a criminal case, ultimately charging Violette with felony theft, punishable by as much as 10 years in prison.

When questioned about the gift cards last year, Violette said they were used as donations to build good will in the community, Robbin said. He explained that the turnpike authority decided, after voters rejected its effort to widen the highway in the early 1990s, that it had to improve relations in the community.

Years before the review by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, Robbin said, a turnpike authority staff member sought to speak with a member of the board of directors about Violette’s spending.

Violette, who prohibited staff members from speaking directly with board members, found out, canceled that meeting and gave the employee counseling, one step short of discipline, Robbin said.

Violette, a former state representative and senator, is unlikely to be sent to the Maine State Prison, which is for prisoners who are sentenced to more than five years. If his sentence is between one and five years, he will likely be sent initially to the Maine Correctional Center in Windham as a minimum security prisoner.

Or, if he has less than three years to serve, he could be sentenced to the Charleston Correctional Center in Penobscot County or the Bolduc Correctional Center in Warren, neither of which has a fence around the perimeter.

If he is sentenced to less than one year, he will likely spend it in the Cumberland County Jail.

Violette has repaid the turnpike authority $155,000, which the current executive director, Peter Mills, says is Violette’s entire net worth. In addition, two insurance companies paid about $280,000 to restore the authority’s lost money.

The state is not looking for any more restitution, Robbin said, but at least one of the insurance companies, Travelers Insurance, says it wants to get money from Violette to cover its losses.

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