PORTLAND — The former head of the Maine Turnpike Authority was sentenced Friday to 3½ years in prison for misusing as much as $230,000 in agency funds, concluding what prosecutors have called one of the most egregious cases of public corruption in the state’s history.

Stays at five-star hotels and meals at high-end restaurants here and abroad were among the lavish purchases that Paul Violette made with credit and gift cards paid for by the turnpike authority, a state investigation showed.

Violette pleaded guilty in February to stealing $150,000 to $230,000 from the authority for his personal use from 2003 to 2010.

“I am mortified by my actions,” Violette, 56, said at a hearing attended by about two dozen people Friday in Cumberland County Unified Criminal Court.

Justice Roland Cole, in determining Violette’s sentence, said he considered Violette’s history of public service as a state legislator and executive director of an otherwise well-run agency for 23 years, as well as his restitution payment of $155,000 – Violette’s entire net worth.

On the other hand, Cole said, he took into account the premeditated nature of Violette’s crime, citing a trip to Italy during which Violette spent $18,000 worth of gift cards on lodging, and his subsequent attempts to cover it up by misleading investigators.

“This went on over seven years,” Cole said as he handed down the sentence of seven years in prison with half of the time suspended.

Violette will serve his sentence, which begins Friday, April 13, at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.

Cole also ordered Violette to give 1,500 hours of community service within two years of his release.

“I cannot say he or I were surprised by the sentence,” said Violette’s attorney, Peter DeTroy, who asked the judge to sentence Violette to a year of jail time or less.

Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin said she was pleased with the sentence, which she called significant.

During Friday’s hearing, Robbin said Violette’s request for a lenient sentence was another example of the “arrogance” and “sense of entitlement” that led him to abuse his authority and the public’s trust.

Robbin called on Peter Mills, who replaced Violette as the turnpike authority’s director, to talk about the effect that Violette’s misdeeds have had on the agency.

Mills said that, with a $430,000 settlement of the lawsuit the authority brought against Violette, the authority has been “made approximately whole” financially.

“The economic loss was not the big impact … It is the generation of a sense of cynicism” among the public and turnpike employees, Mills said.

The extent of that problem will be apparent when the turnpike authority tries to increase tolls within the next year, he said.

At the same time, Mills said, the authority was managed well and employees reported that Violette was “totally dedicated to the agency – that it was his entire life.”

Violette’s brother, Marc Violette, stressed that dedication in asking the judge for leniency.

“The public good that Paul’s produced far outweighs the transgression that brings us here today,” he said.

Paul Violette, who sat for most of the hearing with his hands crossed in front of him and his eyes looking downward, also addressed the judge. He thanked family members for their support and apologized to them, the public and the turnpike authority’s staff and board of directors.

“You trusted me. I failed you, and I hurt you,” he said.

The investigation of the turnpike authority’s spending was authorized in 2009 at the request of Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, who was House chair of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee.

Hill, who had been dealing with the turnpike authority regarding plans for a new toll plaza in York, complained of the quasi-state agency’s lack of transparency and its executives’ arrogance.

Hill said in a phone interview Friday that she asked for the investigation because she “didn’t think (the turnpike authority) had all their procedures in place” and suspected the agency owed money to the state.

“I had no idea that they would find criminal activity on (Violette’s) behalf,” she said.

A report released by the state Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability in January 2011 revealed that the turnpike authority had paid for limousine services, in-room movies and alcoholic beverages in its travel and meal budgets.

It also showed the purchase of $157,000 worth of gift cards to hotels and restaurants in 2005 and 2006. Turnpike authority officials said at the time that the cards were donated to various organizations, but they could not provide records to prove it.

Without admitting wrongdoing, Violette resigned in March 2011, saying the scrutiny of his leadership was a “distraction.” Further investigation exposed his personal use of gift cards and the authority’s credit card for stays in luxury hotels, spa services and expensive dinners.

DeTroy said at Friday’s hearing there is “zero chance” of Violette repeating the crime, and he would better serve the public through community service than a long prison sentence.

He asked the judge to consider Violette’s remorse and restitution, and to dismiss the “public appetite for retribution.”

Hill said she was more interested in cleaning up the turnpike authority than seeing Violette serve time in prison.

“It was really never about him, for me,” she said.

Since the scandal broke, the Legislature has enacted tighter regulations over the turnpike authority, which operates the toll highway from Kittery to Augusta. The agency has slashed its travel budget and taken away most employee credit cards.

Hill said that after Violette resigned, she didn’t pay close attention to his criminal proceedings. She said she was surprised to learn Friday how harsh his sentence was.

“It certainly sends a message,” she said.

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: [email protected]