The sentencing lasted almost an hour. Yet even as Paul Violette walked briskly away from the Cumberland County Courthouse with his head down Friday afternoon, the most perplexing question of all remained unanswered:

Why?

Why would the longtime executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, a former leader in the Maine Legislature, the son of a Maine Supreme Judicial Court justice, engage in embezzlement so serious that he’ll now spend the next few years in prison?

Why did a guy whose salary climbed as high as $184,000 in 2006 still find it necessary to bilk his employer (and turnpike toll payers) out of $430,000 in gift cards, unreported vacation and sick time and various other fraudulent activities not once, not twice, but repeatedly over a seven-year period that ended in 2010?

“It would take somebody with far more insight into human psychology than I have to (answer) that,” said Peter DeTroy, Violette’s attorney, to the assembled media outside the courthouse. “I think he’s struggling to find a reason. As he indicated in his statement, he’s seen a therapist, he’s trying to come to terms with how he could have strayed so far.”

Last week’s sentencing of Violette by Justice Roland Cole – seven years behind bars with all but three-and-a-half suspended, followed by 1,500 hours of community service within two years of his release – was not your typical court proceeding.

Recalling how he himself appeared more than once as an attorney in the same courthouse before Justice Elmer H. Violette, the defendant’s late father, Cole mused, “At that time, I never would have thought I’d be in this position … and certainly no one would have thought (Paul Violette) would be in the position that he’s in here today.”

Yet there Violette stood, seemingly lost in his own disgrace, as DeTroy and Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin took turns portraying the defendant as a good man who did something bad on the one hand, and the epitome of arrogance on the other.

“None of us are the worst of our times and none of us are the best of our times,” DeTroy told the judge. “We are a sum of all those things.”

Beyond Violette’s now-infamous criminal behavior, DeTroy said, lies a “dedicated public servant, a loyal friend and somebody who has done a great deal of good for the state of Maine.”

DeTroy said his client’s only wish was “that his life be put into some kind of balance” before Cole imposed his sentence.

Prosecutor Robbin, citing a three-page, single-spaced letter submitted by Violette to the judge earlier in the week, said the state has no argument with Violette’s lengthy recitation of his family’s many achievements – going back to their founding of his hometown of Van Buren back in the 1770s.

Nor did Robbin quibble with Violette’s account of his own ascension from a young lawmaker fresh out of the University of Maine, to Democratic majority leader of the Maine Senate, to the spacious corner office of Maine’s multi-million-dollar turnpike operation.

“The only question is how any of that is at all relevant to the sentence being imposed in this case,” Robbin said. “For Paul Violette, it shows that he views himself as special and deserving of special treatment.”

Indeed, Robbin said, Violette’s appointment as executive director of the turnpike authority 23 years ago was rooted in the “sense of entitlement” he enjoyed growing up in one of Aroostook County’s most politically prominent families.

“He got the brass ring, the plum position,” Robbin said. “And no doubt his privilege and his family background played a role in his selection. But he took that position and he used it to enrich himself. And that’s why we’re here today.”

No argument there, counselor. Nor, at the same time, could any reasonable observer doubt Violette’s remorse during his own three-minute statement to the judge.

“What I did was wrong,” he told Cole. “I am deeply ashamed. I’m mortified by my actions and their painful and damaging effect on others.”

Which brings us back to that nagging blank that no one, not even Violette himself, managed to fill in: Why, when he was riding so high, would he risk it all by stealing close to a half-million dollars from the very agency he was entrusted to run?

The easy answer is blind greed.

But according to the late Donald Cressey, a nationally renowned sociologist who once wrote a book entitled “Other People’s Money: A Study in the Social Psychology of Embezzlement,” it’s actually a bit more complicated than that.

Cressey, who spent much of his career probing white-collar crime, is credited with the still-used theory of the “fraud triangle.” It holds that embezzlement invariably is supported by three “legs” – the opportunity to steal, pressure to keep stealing, and rationalization that what you’re doing is somehow justified and thus not really wrong.

Cressey referred to embezzlers as “trust violators.” They are often motivated, he found, by any number of “non-shareable” problems they’re incapable of divulging even to their closest friends and loved ones.

One of those “non-shareable” problems is “status-gaining.”

“In this type of case a problem appears when the individual realizes that he does not have the financial means necessary for continued association with persons on a desired status level,” Cressey explained. “And this problem becomes non-shareable when he feels that he can neither renounce his aspirations for membership in the desired group nor obtain prestige symbols necessary to such membership.”

In other words, you get a taste of the high life — with its chauffeured limos, its white-linen tablecloths, its chocolates on the pillow – and you start to believe this is indeed the way life (your life, anyway) should be.

And so you keep stealing … and stealing … and stealing ….

Cressey died back in 1987 – the same year Violette took over the Maine Turnpike Authority.

But as Maine now closes the book on Violette’s $25,000 family trip to Quebec’s Winter Carnival … his $558 round-trip flight to Martha’s Vineyard … his $1,000 cash advance at a casino in Puerto Rico …  it’s not hard to imagine how Cressey, the white-collar-crime expert, would have sized up Violette, the white-collar “trust violator.”

For Paul Elmer Violette, once the trusted son of a supreme court justice, life was always good.

It just wasn’t good enough.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]