PORTLAND, Maine — The former director of the Maine Turnpike Authority was sentenced Friday to 3½ years in prison for stealing tens of thousands of dollars from the agency to pay for upscale hotels, meals at fancy restaurants and spa treatments.

Paul Violette, who appeared Friday in Cumberland County Superior Court, told the judge, “What I did was wrong. I am deeply ashamed.”

Violette had pleaded guilty in February to a charge of felony theft for unauthorized use of turnpike gift cards and using turnpike authority credit cards for personal travel, meals and other expenses in Maine, Massachusetts, Canada, Bermuda, the Caribbean and Europe.

In addition to the abuse of gift cards and agency credit cards, Violette reportedly was paid for $160,000 in vacation and sick time to which he was not entitled.

He faced up to 10 years in prison, but Justice Roland Cole imposed a 7-year sentence and suspended half of it.

The case was prosecuted by the Maine attorney general’s office and lead prosecutor Leanne Robbin.

“Mr. Violette’s sentence sends a strong message that we will fight corruption in government, regardless of an official’s power or position,” Attorney General William Schneider said in a statement. “I commend OPEGA and the Government Oversight Committee for their diligent work to uncover the deliberate abuse of public trust committed by Mr. Violette.”

The Maine Turnpike Authority is responsible for management of more than 100 miles of interstate 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 was head of the turnpike authority for 23 years before he resigned last year amid scrutiny of the agency’s finances.

An investigation by the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability discovered that Violette was responsible for stealing or misappropriating more than $400,000 in agency funds over a period of eight years.

Last fall, Violette settled a civil lawsuit to pay restitution to the agency.

On the day Violette was sentenced, Gov. Paul LePage signed LD 1831 into law. The bill allows a court to forfeit benefits of a public employee who is a member of the Maine Public Employees Retirement System if the member is convicted of a felony crime in connection with that employee’s job.

LD 1831 was written after lawmakers learned that Violette would get to continue collecting approximately $5,000 every month for his pension.

“The court would have discretion to make the final decision based on the facts of the crime itself. If it is egregious, the court would have the authority to order a forfeiture of the pension,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Les Fossel, R-Alna, said.

The new law does not apply to Violette since he already has his pension, but would apply to any future cases. It also would bring Maine in line with more than 15 other states that have pension forfeiture laws on their books.

Current MTA Director Peter Mills has said that a good portion of Violette’s pension is going toward restitution.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Follow BDN reporter Eric Russell on Twitter @BDNPolitics.