MACHIAS, Maine — Former Pleasant Point Police Chief Joseph Barnes, 42, pleaded guilty Wednesday in Washington County Superior Court to felony theft charges involving more than $33,244 that he took from Passamaquoddy Tribal accounts between April 2007 and May 2008.
Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin said Barnes used the money to feed a gambling habit at casinos in both Connecticut and Louisiana, and avoided tribal and U.S. Department of Interior investigations for months.
His police career destroyed and his reputation shattered, Barnes sobbed through much of Wednesday’s proceeding. His attorney said he was under the care of a mental health counselor and Barnes’ sentencing was postponed until June 9 because of his tenuous emotional state.
Robbin explained that Barnes, who was an honored and decorated police chief, began funneling thousands of dollars into a so-called soda account, and then “frittered it all away” at Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut and another casino in Marksville, La.
Robbin said Barnes refused to answer questions when the tribe’s chief financial officer discovered that thousands of dollars were suddenly being deposited in the small soda account, supported by a vending machine in the police station. Those deposits then were being withdrawn by Barnes, either through automatic teller machines at casinos, or checks written out to cash.
After being confronted in May 2009, Barnes resigned as the police chief and did not provide tribal leaders with an exit interview.
According to Robbin, in October 2007 Barnes withdrew $2,400 from an ATM at a Louisiana casino, just days after a $10,000 check from an ESPN executive was diverted from a tribal charity into the soda account. The check was intended to purchase three permits for moose hunts for the ESPN executive on tribal lands.
Other money deposited in the soda account came from the state of Maine for reimbursements for services, for a Maine Drug Enforcement Agency officer, and tribal warden funds.
Throughout the investigation, Barnes claimed the money went toward paying off confidential informants and supplying cash prizes to various charities. Robbin said Barnes could provide no documentation of that.
Robbin said most of the checks deposited were addressed to the Pleasant Point Police Department but should have been deposited in the tribal general fund as revenues. The investigation was triggered by tribal leaders and involved the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Maine Attorney General’s Office.
“We discovered there was a correlation between withdrawals made by Mr. Barnes and trips he made to casinos,” Robbin said. She said Barnes stopped using an ATM at one point and began writing checks to cash for $200, $500 and $750. The withdrawals stopped in May 2008, she said, “because there was no more money and the tribe was left with overdraft fees.”
Wednesday’s hearing took place just one day before jury selection was to begin for Barnes’ trial. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor of misuse of entrusted funds and a felony charge of theft by unauthorized taking.
A pre-sentence investigation was requested by Barnes’ attorney Jeff Davidson, who said he expects to call several witnesses at the sentencing hearing.
Justice E. Allen Hunter set June 9 as a sentencing date.
Robbin said the state will be asking for a four-year prison sentence with all but one year suspended and restitution.
Barnes, who served as a police officer for more than 20 years, was in his 20s when he was appointed police chief at Pleasant Point in 1992, the youngest on the reservation. In 2000, the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Waterville certified Barnes as a police chief. He was the first American Indian in the state to receive such certification.
Barnes in 2006 received the Chief of Police of the Year Award from the National Native American Law Enforcement Association, the first for a Maine American Indian police chief. In 2000 Barnes, working with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, helped deal a blow to the prescription drug problem on the reservation when a covert operation led to the arrest of some 15 people. Three years later, the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency presented Barnes and former tribal investigator Robert Dore with the distinguished Maine Drug Task Force Service Award.