Maine Sheriff, Mired in Controversy, Defeated in Re-election Bid
The sheriff of Washington County, Maine has lost his bid for re-election following eight tumultuous years that left him beset with one highly-publicized incident after another.
The Bangor Daily News reported on November 5, 2014 that former Maine state trooper Barry Curtis had defeated incumbent Sheriff Donnie Smith by roughly 2,000 votes – 7,356 to Smith’s 5,494. The election signaled the end of an era marked by lawsuits, allegations of theft and misuse of county jail prisoner funds, and a domestic abuse case that led to the arrest of Smith’s wife.
The most recent revelation came just two weeks before the election, when 17 former Washington County Sheriff’s Office employees filed suit against Smith, claiming he had violated their privacy rights by including their names and Social Security numbers in documents sent to the Secretary of State’s office.
The lawsuit alleged invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence; the plaintiffs are seeking unspecified damages that would allow them to monitor and protect their private identifying information from theft or misuse.
Attorneys for Smith called the suit “bottom-of-the-barrel politicking,” noting it was filed shortly before the election. The attorney representing the former employees, Steven Blackwell, countered that the timing of the lawsuit was merely coincidental.
Smith suffered another public relations gaffe when a Maine state arbitration panel ruled that a former Washington County jail clerk should not have been fired following allegations that she misused funds from an “inmate benefit account.”
The State Board of Arbitration and Reconciliation held on October 13, 2014 that Karina Richardson, 50, instead should have been disciplined with a six-month suspension without pay and returned to her original job position.
“We are very disappointed,” said Smith, in an email to the Bangor Daily News, that the arbitrators did not uphold Richardson’s firing, “because of the message it sends to [the] public and great people I have working at [the] sheriff’s office who do the right thing.”
The case gained notoriety when Maine Department of Labor hearing officer Alexander F. Cuprak issued a report in May 2013 that found Richardson was entitled to unemployment benefits “on the grounds that she was discharged, but not for misconduct connected with her work.” The report said Richardson did not misuse the funds and that her “understanding of the appropriate use of the funds was based upon the prevailing practice.”
Cuprak determined that Sheriff Smith and then-jail administrator Robert Gross, 62, “liberally interpreted” how the funds were to be used and that there was a long-standing pattern of how money in the account was spent.
Throughout Richardson’s 12-year employment at the jail, Cuprak wrote, a wide variety of items “that were exceedingly remote from any benefit to the inmate population” were purchased using the account, including an air conditioner for the sheriff’s office, gift cards for a local doughnut shop, articles of clothing given to jail guards, gift cards to a local restaurant provided to members of the Washington County Jail Board of Visitors and a $12,000 computer system used for booking prisoners.
Under state law, the account, which is funded through the jail’s telephone contract and commissary sales, must be used only to directly benefit the prisoner population. The statute prohibits using the money for any part of the jail’s operational budget.
“The county had set the precedent,” said Richardson’s attorney, Jeffrey Davidson. “The county took 50 times what Karina received. The commissioners, the sheriff, the jail administrator, everyone was using that account improperly. As the clerk, Karina didn’t make any decisions on how this money was spent.”
Cuprak also determined in his report that items Richardson had received from the account – a cellphone and a $400 clothing allowance – were permissible based on how the county used the account in the past. He found Richardson never signed any checks drafted on the account; instead, all checks were signed by either Sheriff Smith or Gross.
The report noted that in 2010, Smith temporarily froze the account after learning that a sheriff in another county had been accused of improperly using inmate benefit account funds to buy a cruiser, but then later gave the jail administrator the authority to continue “in the same manner as they had been using it.” However, Smith denied that he had approved any improper purchases from the account.
Gross resigned on January 18, 2013, before the Washington County commissioners could act on his termination. His resignation letter was filed one day after he testified against Richardson at her termination hearing.
“I really don’t think I did anything wrong,” Gross maintained. “The only reason I pulled the plug is how can I go back to work for a man who gave me permission to do something and then said he didn’t? Even if I won, I was going to lose.”
Smith denied the allegations.“All I can say is that, as soon as I knew what was going on, I got on it,” he stated. “I count on my people to do their jobs correctly and for audits to make sure that they are. If I had known about this sooner, I would have acted sooner.”
In another controversy shortly before the sheriff’s election, a woman announced she intended to sue Smith based on an October 8, 2014 incident involving a confrontation on a school bus in Lubec, Maine – Smith’s hometown. Deborah Bousquet, a school teacher, alleged that Smith had wrongfully arrested her; Smith countered that Bousquet assaulted him. The district attorney’s office charged Bousquet with disorderly conduct and obstructing government administration, but not assault; the charges were later dropped.
Sheriff Smith also made headlines on June 21, 2013 when state police responded to a domestic violence complaint at the home he shared with his wife, Lynne Kelsey-Smith, who called the police to report her husband had threatened her.
“She requested a police response to the residence,” according to state police Lt. Roderick Charette. “She alleged that she had been threatened [by Smith], but when we got there and actually did the investigation, we arrested her for assaulting him.” The state police said Smith was not injured; the couple subsequently divorced. Kelsey-Smith was convicted of filing a false report against her ex-husband and fined $250.
Finally, according to a February 18, 2015 news report, Smith is facing four criminal charges that include two counts of harassment by phone or electronic communication device, for texting members of the sheriff’s office in an “offensively coarse or obscene” manner, and one count each of reckless conduct and driving to endanger. The latter two charges stem from an incident in which Smith was driving in front of Bousquet and twice slammed on his brakes, nearly causing an accident, then got out of his vehicle and attempted to open her car door. Smith has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Hopefully, Washington County’s new sheriff will experience less drama and controversy while in office.
Sources: Bangor Daily News, www.wcsh6.com, www.wcsheriffsoffice.com, www.mainenewssimply.com
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