PORTLAND, Maine — Former Maine Turnpike Authority executive director Paul Violette requested and received more than $316,000 for unused vacation and sick time from the agency he resigned from last year. That payout came despite the fact he was resigning over allegations he stole hundreds of thousands of dollars of the turnpike’s money for lavish international vacations, Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin said Thursday.
Violette pleaded guilty in Cumberland County Superior Court on Thursday to Class B theft charges, meaning he stole at least $10,000 from the authority that employed him for 23 years. Robbin said during Violette’s court hearing that the state can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the former turnpike head used approximately $155,000 in authority money on personal expenses, including gift cards to hotels and resorts in Canada, France, Italy, Bermuda and Puerto Rico.
She said investigators speculate the amount Violette used for ritzy vacations, spa treatments and even a tuxedo rental ultimately may add up to more than $230,000, but she said the $316,000 paid out to the former executive director in unused vacation time is not being sought by the state because it can’t pinpoint with certainty when he was on vacation from work.
Robbin also said that despite the fact that Violette, who resigned last March, received checks of $185,000 and $131,000 for unused sick and vacation time, the state believes the $155,000 he offered in restitution to the turnpike now represents the entirety of his net worth. Bonding companies Travelers Casualty and CNA Surety reportedly will pay the authority back another $275,000.
Violette will continue to receive his state pension even if he goes to prison. Unlike many states, Maine does not have a pension forfeiture law to penalize public employees convicted of violating the public trust. The agency’s new head, Peter Mills, said last month that much of Violette’s more than $5,000-per-month pension will be used to settle debt he incurred paying $155,000 in restitution.
Violette did not answer questions outside of the courthouse in Portland on Thursday afternoon after his hearing, only silently lifting a hand to indicate he would not speak to the crowd of assembled reporters as he pushed past them and walked away. His attorney, Peter DeTroy, said in general terms that Violette paid much of his vacation payout in taxes and previous debt obligations likely consumed the remaining amount.
“There are no hidden bank accounts,” DeTroy said.
Violette was accompanied in the courtroom by his oldest brother and his brother’s wife.
“He has a sense of remorse and regret,” DeTroy told reporters after the hearing. “And he has a sense of anxiety. He’s 56 years old and he doesn’t know what’s going to happen to him.”
Violette agreed to plea guilty to the felony theft charges in exchange for a sentence not to exceed five years in prison.
DeTroy said he will argue for a shorter prison term for his client at the sentencing, which is scheduled to take place in approximately 60 days, but said he was not prepared Thursday to divulge how much shorter a term he will request. DeTroy said Violette likely will make public comments at his sentencing.
Robbin said “any jail time is a blow” to defendants in financial crimes.
“These are people who never imagined themselves in jail,” she said, calling the Violette case “the biggest public robbery case I’ve seen in my 28 years of public service.”
During the hearing, Robbin laid out the state’s case against Violette, which began with an Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability review of the Maine Turnpike Authority in 2010. The OPEGA researchers could not account for approximately $206,000 in authority spending, much of which was traced to hotel gift cards.
Robbin said Violette initially told state investigators the gift cards were to be donated to area nonprofit organizations as part of an “expanded civic involvement” campaign, aimed to better inform the public about the turnpike and its needs after a proposed widening of the highway was defeated at the polls.
The assistant attorney general said state researchers then reviewed hotel and resort records from all over North America and Europe to find out who redeemed the gift cards.
“In fact, Violette, his family and friends appeared to be the primary beneficiaries of the gift cards,” Robbin told the court.
Among the former executive director’s lavish vacations were a $40,000 trip to Paris in 2004, a nearly $20,000 trip to Italy in 2005 and visits to the historic Chateau Frontenac in 2005 and 2006 for Quebec’s Winter Carnival and meetings of the Winston Churchill Society, costing more than $25,000 combined.
“I think he fell into a pattern,” DeTroy told reporters. “A lot of it, he probably rationalized as OK after taking part in activities before and after conferences that had been board-approved.”
Robbin said Maine Turnpike Authority employees were “afraid to confront him,” and said Violette had a policy prohibiting turnpike workers from speaking to members of the authority’s board of directors. She said one employee who was scheduled to meet with a board member was brought in by Violette for “counseling,” a precursor to disciplinary action, and the meeting was canceled.
Robbin told reporters after the hearing Thursday that Violette exhibited a “significant abuse of power.”
The Maine Turnpike Authority is responsible for management of more than 100 miles of interstate highway from Kittery to Augusta. The agency employs 470, collects approximately $100 million in tolls every year and is overseen by a seven-member board whose members are appointed by the governor.
Violette had run the turnpike authority since 1988, but the allegations of financial wrongdoing date back only about eight years.