PORTLAND — Former Maine Turnpike Authority Executive Director Paul Violette has agreed to plead guilty to theft for unauthorized use of turnpike funds in exchange for a prison sentence not to exceed five years, Violette's attorney said Thursday.
Violette was charged in a court filing Wednesday with using Maine Turnpike Authority property in the form of gift cards or charges for personal travel, meals and other expenses on turnpike authority credit cards, said Brenda Kielty, spokeswoman for the attorney general's office. The charge carries a maximum penalty of up to 10 years in prison.
Violette has agreed to an eight-year sentence, with at least three years being suspended, said defense attorney Peter DeTroy. A judge will determine the final sentence, which could well be less than five years.
Violette must first enter his plea at hearing before he is sentenced at a later hearing. Neither hearing has been scheduled.
"He's just eager to get this behind him," DeTroy said.
Violette's 23-year reign as 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 lawsuit while the attorney general's office finished its criminal investigation.
Nobody answered the phone Thursday at Violette's residence in Portland.
Violette's use of turnpike funds came under scrutiny last year following the release of a report by the state Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability that looked at turnpike authority operations and finances. 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 to 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 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.
Turnpike officials had been expecting Violette to be charged, Mills said.
"Our perspective is we're relieved to see this chapter in the turnpike's history coming to a close," he said.
Violette, 56, comes from a highly regarded political family from northern Maine. His father, Elmer Violette, served in the House and Senate, ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House and U.S. Senate and served as a superior court judge before appointed a justice on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
Before becoming the head of the MTA, Paul Violette served in the House and Senate and at one time was Senate majority leader.