PORTLAND — The former head of the Maine Turnpike Authority was sentenced Friday to 3 years in prison for misusing as much as $230,000 in agency funds, concluding what prosecutors have called one of the most egregious cases of public corruption in the state’s history.

Stays at five-star hotels and meals at high-end restaurants here and abroad were among the lavish purchases that Paul Violette made with credit and gift cards paid for by the turnpike authority, a state investigation showed.

Violette pleaded guilty in February to stealing $150,000 to $230,000 from the authority for his personal use from 2003 and 2010.

“I am mortified by my actions,” Violette, 56, said at a hearing attended by about two dozen people Friday in Cumberland County Unified Criminal Court.

Justice Roland Cole, in determining Violette’s sentence, said he considered Violette’s history of public service as a state legislator and executive director of an otherwise well-run agency for 23 years, as well as his restitution payment of $155,000 — Violette’s entire net worth.

On the other hand, Cole said, he took into account the premeditated nature of Violette’s crime, citing a trip to Italy during which Violette spent $18,000 worth of gift cards on lodging, and his subsequent attempts to cover it up by misleading investigators.

“This went on over seven years,” Cole said as he handed down the sentence of seven years in prison with half of the time suspended.

Violette will most likely serve his sentence, which begins Friday at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.

Cole also ordered Violette to serve 1,500 hours of community service within two years of his release.

“I cannot say he or I were surprised by the sentence,” said his attorney Peter DeTroy, who asked the judge for a year or less of jail time.

Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin said she was pleased with the sentence, which she called significant. Robbin had sought a five-year sentence, the agreed-upon maximum in a plea deal between Violette and the state.

At the hearing Friday, Robbin said Violette’s request for a lenient sentence was another example of the “arrogance” and “sense of entitlement” that led to him to abuse his authority and the public’s trust.

Robbin called on Peter Mills, who replaced Violette as the turnpike director, to talk about the effect that the former leader’s misdeeds have had on the agency.

Mills said a $430,000 lawsuit settlement the authority brought against Violette has made the agency “approximately whole” financially.

“The economic loss was not the big impact,” he said. “It is the generation of a sense of cynicism” among the public and turnpike employees.

The extent of that problem will be apparent when the turnpike authority tries to raise tolls within the next year, he said.

At the same time, Mills said the agency had been managed well, and that employees reported that Violette was “totally dedicated to the agency — that it was his entire life.”

Violette’s brother, Marc Violette, stressed that dedication in asking the judge for lenience.

“The public good that Paul’s produced far outweighs the transgression that brings us here today,” he said.

Violette, who sat for most of the hearing with his hands crossed in front of him and eyes looking down, also addressed the judge. He thanked his family for their support and apologized to them, the public and the turnpike authority’s staff and board of directors.

“You trusted me. I failed you and I hurt you,” he said.

An investigation into the turnpike authority’s spending by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability was authorized in 2009 at the request of Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, House chair of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee.

Hill, who had been dealing with the turnpike authority regarding a new toll plaza in York, complained at the time of the quasi-state agency’s lack of transparency and the arrogance of its executives.

Hill said in a phone interview Friday that she asked for the investigation because she “didn’t think (the turnpike authority) had all their procedures in place” and suspected the agency owed money to the state.

“I had no idea that they would find criminal activity on (Violette’s) behalf,” she said.

A report released by OPEGA in January 2011 revealed that the turnpike authority had paid for limousine services, in-room movies and alcoholic beverages as part of its travel and meal budgets. It also showed the purchase of $157,000 in gift cards to hotels and restaurants in 2005 and 2006, which turnpike authority officials said at the time were donated to organizations, but could not provide records to prove it.

Without admitting any wrongdoing, Violette resigned in March 2011, saying the scrutiny of his leadership was a distraction. Further investigation exposed his personal use of gift cards and the authority’s credit card for luxury hotels stays, spa services and expensive dinners.

DeTroy said at the hearing Friday there was “zero chance” of Violette repeating the crime and he would better serve the public through community service than a lengthy prison sentence.

He asked the judge to consider Violette’s remorse and restitution and to dismiss the “public appetite for retribution.”

Hill said she was more interested cleaning up the turnpike authority than seeing Violette serve time in prison.

“It was really never about him for me,” she said.

Since the scandal broke, the Legislature has enacted tighter regulations over the turnpike authority, which operates the toll highway from Kittery to Augusta. The agency has also slashed its travel budget and taken away most employee credit cards.

Hill said after Violette resigned that she didn’t pay that close attention to his criminal proceedings. She said she was surprised to learn Friday how harsh his sentence was.

“It certainly sends a message,” she said.

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