The former head of a Camden-based charity for the needy who embezzled more than $4.6 million from the nonprofit – the largest amount stolen from a charity in Maine history – was sentenced Friday to serve four years in prison and ordered to repay the money.

Russell “Rusty” Brace, 82, of Camden, was ordered by Judge George Singal in U.S. District Court in Portland to report to federal prison on Nov. 4. Singal allowed him to leave the courthouse with his family after being sentenced.

Brace, once considered a pillar of the community as president of United Mid-Coast Charities before he retired last year, repeatedly stole donated money from 1999 until 2014 that was intended for the poor and needy in Knox and Waldo counties to fund his lavish lifestyle.

“My words alone will not begin to encompass the full and true apology I owe to the community,” Brace said, standing at a lectern as he addressed the judge.

But Brace struggled to come up with answers when the judge questioned him sharply.

“Can you tell me why you began stealing from the charity?” Singal asked.

Brace began recounting his failings in business around 2006 and 2007, when photograph processing stores that he owned faltered as digital photography grew more popular. But when Singal refocused his question to 1999, when Brace began his massive embezzling scheme, Brace responded, “I honestly can’t remember the particular incident or circumstances.”

Brace agreed with the judge when Singal suggested he stole the money rather than face the public embarrassment of “being broke” and having to file for bankruptcy.

Singal also sentenced Brace to serve two years of supervised release after completion of his prison term.

Brace’s attorney, Peter DeTroy, asked the judge to impose a lesser sentence for Brace than he might give a younger man, because of his age.

“He’s not a robust man. He’s a man of 82. He’s doing the best he can, but he’s someone who likely doesn’t have much of an extended trail,” DeTroy said in court.

The prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald Clark, asked the judge to disregard that argument because Brace was already an elderly man who had had every advantage in life – including an Ivy League education, power and wealth – when he committed his crimes.

“The problem here is that the defendant committed these crimes when he was old, between the ages of 65 and 80, when he should have known better,” Clark said. “Sometimes a sentence has to be mostly about punishment.”

Clark said that while stealing is a crime, stealing from a charity is “morally reprehensible.”

NO WORDS TO EXPRESS ANGER

Eric Belley, treasurer for United Mid-Coast Charities, said that Brace stole 50 cents of every dollar donated to the nonprofit during his tenure as president.

The charity’s mission is to raise money for organizations such as food pantries, the American Red Cross and heating assistance programs that the poor and needy in Knox and Waldo counties depend upon.

“For a long time, there really weren’t any words that I and those like me could say to express our anger at Mr. Brace,” Belley said.

Belley said Brace’s crime was unprecedented in Maine. Brace embezzled more money from a charity than anyone else in the state’s history, a fact that Clark later confirmed.

United Mid-Coast Charities’ current president, Stephen Crane, said it was a particularly telling point about Brace’s character that Brace donated some of the stolen money back to the very charity that he stole from to make himself appear generous.

As Belley and Crane spoke, Brace held his fingertips to his forehead.

Brace’s youngest daughter, Pamela Delehey, asked the judge for leniency for her father. She said her family has gone through a cycle of grief, from the initial shock to acceptance, since learning what her father had done.

“We’ve been through the shock, the anger, the resistance and some form of acceptance for where we are in this journey. Now, I ask for hope, so in the last years of his life we can somehow recover from the damage that he’s done,” Delehey said.

Brace pleaded guilty on May 29 to one count of mail fraud and two counts of tax fraud. He has remained free on his own recognizance since then.

During Brace’s time as president and director of United Mid-Coast Charities from 1999 to 2014, he solicited donations by mail that were intended for social service agencies and charities in Knox and Waldo counties. But once the checks came in, he deposited them in a bank account unassociated with the nonprofit, according to court records.

Between July 1999 and September 2014, Brace deposited 377 checks for a total of $4,646,636.45 payable to United Mid-Coast Charities into an account at The First Bank that he used to pay personal expenses, court records say.

THE BIG QUESTION: WHY?

Brace also failed to report as income on federal tax returns the money he deposited and spent, and also avoided paying nearly $390,000 in taxes on it. He filed false tax returns for the nonprofit in which he failed to disclose the money he obtained illegally from United Mid-Coast Charities.

Members of the nonprofit began looking into financial records after Brace’s retirement last August and initially discovered that three checks totaling $75,000 in donations had not been deposited in the charity’s bank account but had instead been deposited into his account at The First Bank. A banking investigation followed and revealed a much larger scheme, at first thought to be at least $3.8 million, according to court records.

When United Mid-Coast Charities officials confronted Brace on Sept. 25, 2014, he confessed. He later confessed his crimes to federal agents who questioned him.

Brace did not stop to answer any questions from reporters as he left the courthouse Friday and got into a waiting vehicle.

DeTroy accompanied Brace to the vehicle, then stayed behind to answer questions after Brace departed. He said Singal’s questions got to the heart of the question on everyone’s mind: Why?

“He was faced with what he thought was a financial abyss, and for him, his self and his public persona were such that he just almost couldn’t conceive of losing that,” DeTroy said.

Brace has so far paid back more than $1 million of what he stole, DeTroy said. Brace may be able to pay another $325,000 from the sale of his home in Rangeley and at most $200,000 in profits from the sale of his Camden home, he said.

“So will he be able to pay it off? No, of course not,” DeTroy said.