PORTLAND – The former executive director of a nonprofit agency for the needy was sentenced Tuesday to 2½ years in prison and nearly $1.35 million in restitution for embezzling $900,000 from the organization he led for more than 20 years.

Thomas Nelson, 56, stole the money from Sanford-based York County Community Action Corp., which provides services such as fuel assistance for the poor and food aid for low-income women and children, from 2004 until his abrupt resignation in 2010.

Nelson stole the money in part to fuel his gambling addiction, which he has since kicked, according to his attorney.

Nelson, dressed for his court appearance in slacks and a wrinkled, open-collar shirt, stood and apologized for his actions, saying he had “no good excuse.”

“I’m sorry to York County Community Action. They are great people, and I let them down,” Nelson said. “They trusted me, treated me well and I let them down.”

Judge Nancy Torresen said she accepted the recommendation from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for a reduced prison sentence because Nelson cooperated fully with investigators and she wanted him to be able to return to the work force to begin repaying his debt.

“From my point of view, you stole money from people who could least afford to lose it,” Torresen told Nelson. “I consider this crime shameful.”

Over the six years, Nelson diverted money from York County Community Action to a consulting firm outside Maine that returned a portion of the money in cash or payments toward Nelson’s personal expenses, according to court records.

“He fully admitted it,” said Nelson’s attorney, Jeffrey Silverstein. “He doesn’t deny it. He never has and never will.”

York County Community Action, which operates most of the low-income and poverty programs in York County, has an operating budget of about $20 million a year, with most of its money coming from the federal government.

Silverstein said Nelson has a “compulsive aspect” of his personality that caused him to “dive deeply into a gambling problem.”

Nelson continued to work for nonprofits after leaving York County Community Action, serving as executive director of Rockingham County Community Action in New Hampshire until he agreed in March 2012 to plead guilty to embezzlement in Maine.

He pleaded guilty on July 31 to 10 charges: conspiracy to defraud the United States, theft of federal funds, six counts of tax evasion and two counts of subscribing to a false tax return.

Nelson said that while awaiting sentencing, he has worked only at odd jobs, living first with his ex-wife and then with a relative.

The judge broke down the amount of restitution that Nelson must pay, with nearly $700,000 to York County Community Action, $500,000 to NGM Insurance Co. and nearly $150,000 to the Internal Revenue Service.

Barbara Crider, the current executive director of York County Community Action, said in a written statement that no program funds were taken, and services were never interrupted because of Nelson’s thefts.

“The Board would like to commend the U. S. Attorney’s Office for its thorough investigation which led to the discovery of these crimes, and to a just result for the perpetrator,” Crider said in the emailed statement.

Joseph Groff, the lawyer who represents York County Community Action, told the judge at Tuesday’s hearing that the agency has recovered a substantial amount of the lost funds from its insurance bond.

Groff said no other employee of York County Community Action has been investigated in connection with Nelson’s actions, and the consulting firm he used in his embezzlement scheme was not connected with the agency.

Nelson was ordered to report to prison on June 18.

Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at:

sdolan@pressherald.com