SKOWHEGAN — Claudia Viles vowed Friday that she will fight to get her name cleared “as long as I am breathing” before she was sentenced to five years in prison for stealing more than $500,000 in excise tax money from the Anson Town Office, where she was tax collector for 33 years.

“I did not do what I am being accused of,” Viles, 66, said in Somerset County Superior Court. “As long as I am breathing, I will be fighting to get myself exonerated and my name cleared.”

Justice Robert Mullen sentenced Viles to eight years in prison, of which she will serve five years and then three years of probation for Class B felony theft, and nine months, to run concurrently, for 12 other charges related to tax fraud and tampering with public documents. She also was ordered to pay $566,257 in restitution to the town of Anson.

Viles maintained the same stoic demeanor during her brief statement that she has shown throughout her court appearances.

She said that while she expected to be a person of interest in the case, “I had absolutely nothing to hide and I was anxious for the investigation to start so that the focus could get past me and other things could be looked into, so they could figure out what actually happened.” Instead, she said, she was “caught in a rush of judgment and the bus has been thrown over me.”

“I’ve known all along what did not happen,” she said. “I did not take any money and there’s been no proof, no evidence that I have any money that is not my own, none.”

Mullen said that when he sentenced Viles, he had hoped she would take a different tack.

“I thought that we might hear today from you in connection with what happened, but I didn’t, and it frankly doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “I don’t know why what happened happened, and perhaps we will never know.”

Viles’ attorney, Walter McKee, said Friday she has maintained her innocence since her indictment by a grand jury on Sept. 3, 2015.

McKee said after the hearing that he plans to appeal the verdict and Friday filed a notice of appeal.

“What’s striking here is that everybody really agreed this person is a wonderful, kind and generous person and the verdict in the case ultimately was at odds with that,” he said.

Mullen also approved a stay of execution for Viles pending the appeal process, meaning she will not have to serve the sentence until after a decision is made. She was ordered to make bail in the amount of $50,000 in property or $10,000 cash by Wednesday to remain out of prison.

Members of Viles’ family, including her husband, Glenn Viles, declined to comment. Yet the overwhelming support for Viles was apparent Friday in the packed courtroom, where a line of supporters extended nearly out the door as people waited to hug and comfort Viles after the hearing.

The sentence and restitution are largely what Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin asked for in the case, which she said is the largest Maine prosecution of a public official involving embezzlement of public money.

IMPACT ON TOWN

The only larger cases in state history are a theft of $508,154 by Fort Kent Town Manager Marilyn Deschaine in 1997 and the misappropriation of more than $1.7 million by Bobby Newell, who was governor of Indian Township, a Pasamaquoddy reservation. The Fort Kent case was never prosecuted because Deschaine committed suicide after the theft was brought to light and the Indian Township case was prosecuted in federal court.

“Justice has been served in this case,” Robbin said outside court. “(Viles) really has distinguished herself in the amount of money she stole and the manner in which she took it. It’s very possible that she may have been stealing money since 1982 (her first year as tax collector).”

Before she was sentenced, residents and town officials spoke about the impact Viles’ theft has had on the town. They said the town has increased the tax rate to the point that some residents have lost their homes, requiring the town to take out bonds to fund municipal projects, and that the Viles case has created an atmosphere of distrust and cynicism toward town government. The town’s tax bills are down about 5 percent because of the spike in excise tax revenue since Viles resigned last year.

“Yesterday was the first day of school in Anson,” resident Randy Turner said. “We are in one of the poorest school districts in Somerset County. We also saw our taxes drop by about $150 for the average household this year (now that Viles is out of office.) Can you imagine the clothes, books, pens and pencils your child could have had for the first day of school with $150?”

“We don’t know and will never know how much was taken from us,” resident Ellen McQuiston said. “Like others, I have had charming interactions with our tax collector, but I do believe she stole from us.”

But many others spoke in support of Viles. More than 30 letters written by friends, family, residents and even local professionals and officials, including the principal of an elementary school, were submitted as part of the plea for a lesser sentence.

Viles’ son, Dan Viles, wrote that he was in shock when he heard the allegations and that it went against everything she taught him as a child. He also talked about how his mother supported their family through the death of his brother in 2009 as the result of a drug addiction.

“Her charm is not a facade; it runs deeper than that,” Dan Viles said. “Fundamentally she is a decent person who cares about other people.”

Another woman, who identified herself as Mary Jane and Viles’ sister-in-law, said that when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Viles offered to shave her hair in support.

“That’s something money can’t buy,” she said. “That’s pure love, and it wasn’t because it was me. She would honestly do that for anyone.

“I still maintain the world would be a better place if we had more people like Claudia in it,” she said.

‘FICTION’ CREATED

It’s not unusual for defendants in white-collar crimes to have supporters, Robbin said. She said that, in part, the support came from a “fiction” that Viles had created around herself and that her generosity was fueled with someone else’s money.

The restitution Viles was ordered to pay covers the $500,948 in town excise tax money that she stole from 2009 to 2015, as well as an additional $65,309 to cover the economic hardship placed on the town because of the case, including attorney’s and auditors’ fees.

Viles manipulated adding machine tapes while working as elected tax collector to produce a total on her receipts that was different from what she had collected, and she kept the difference. Town officials have said that since her resignation last September, the amount of excise tax collected by the town has increased and there are also more checks and balances in place to prevent theft, including that the tax collector is now an appointive position.