PORTLAND — Former Executive Director Paul Violette lied about $161,000 worth of vacation and sick time, redeemed at least $64,800 worth of gift cards for personal use and made tens of thousands of dollars in improper credit card charges, the Maine Turnpike Authority says in a lawsuit.

The filing Tuesday in Cumberland County Superior Court charges that “during 2010, evidence came to light that the defendant, over a period of years, had fraudulently converted to his own use or for his own benefit very substantial funds of the Maine Turnpike Authority.”

The authority seeks to recover $450,000 from Violette, who resigned in March after an investigation called attention to lavish and undocumented spending during part of his 23-year tenure.

The turnpike authority, a quasi-state agency, operates the toll road from Kittery to Augusta and collects roughly $100 million in tolls annually. It now has an interim executive director, Peter Mills, a former Republican state senator.

Mills said Tuesday that the turnpike authority’s board directed him to explore the possibility of recovering money if an audit determined it had been misappropriated.

“The board, back in March, gave me this task to pursue and it’s just now coming to fruition,” he said.

The lawsuit asks the court to freeze $450,000 worth of Violette’s assets to satisfy the claims. It says that as a lawyer and former legislator who once was Senate majority leader, Violette “should have known better than to misuse his position as executive director to convert Maine Turnpike Authority funds to his own personal use, benefit and enjoyment.”

Violette’s lawyer, Peter DeTroy of Portland, declined to comment on the lawsuit Tuesday, noting the potential for a criminal case against his client. The state Attorney General’s Office is investigating.

“I’m handcuffed,” said DeTroy. “I could have a response to any number of these things, but I have a potential criminal (case) out there.”

The civil complaint says that from 2003 to 2007, the authority bought gift cards to upscale hotels and restaurants worth $186,642, ostensibly to donate them to Maine organizations.

But according to the lawsuit, only $26,550 worth of gift cards actually went to organizations. Thousands of dollars worth of the cards went unused or undocumented, and nearly $100,000 worth were used by Violette personally, the suit says.

Those gift cards were redeemed at hotels like the Hotel La Collegiata in San Gimignano, Italy, the La Reserve de Beaulieu in France and the Casa de Carmona in Spain, according to court documents. Cards worth $47,575 were used at Hyatt hotels in Paris, Greece, Philadelphia and Puerto Rico.

The lawsuit also alleges that Violette charged $24,820 in personal expenses to the authority’s credit cards from 2003 to 2010.

Other charges totaling $143,480 for travel expenses were “so extravagant as to constitute a deliberate abuse of the defendant’s position,” the lawsuit says.

The charges included a $1,000 cash advance at a casino in Puerto Rico, a $3,240 villa rental in Italy, thousands of dollars for overseas phone and car rental charges, and travel agent fees. There also were charges for meals, a spa, gas, airline tickets, airport parking, flowers, theater tickets and car services, according to court documents.

Some of the personal charges were made during business trips, the turnpike authority claims, while others were made on days when Violette was confirmed to be on vacation.

The authority is also seeking $161,000 from Violette for overpaid vacation and sick time. Violette claimed that he never took a vacation or sick day in his 23 years on the job, so the authority paid him $315,617 for unused time off after he resigned, court documents say.

“In fact, the defendant did take vacation time, and almost certainly used sick leave from time to time,” the lawsuit says.

The turnpike authority says it based its lawsuit on an audit by the accounting firm Runyon, Kersteen and Ouellette, a report by the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, and research by the authority’s staff.

“In the present case, there can be little question as to the defendant’s liability,” the authority says in the lawsuit.

Violette, whose annual salary was about $130,000, came under fire when the accountability office released a review in January that was critical of the authority’s spending and called attention to undocumented gift-card expenses.

Violette declined to comment on the purchases when asked about them in April at a hearing before the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, citing his right against self-incrimination.

 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

 

Staff Writer Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or at: [email protected]