Report: Lingerie, cookbooks, cellphone bills paid for with Washington County inmates’ benefit fund

By Tom Walsh, BDN Staff
Posted Jan. 16, 2013, at 12:54 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — A “Santa Baby” novelty plunge bra, four sateen push-up bras, a velour bustier top and a ruffle-trim leather motorcycle jacket were apparently purchased in 2012 with funds from an inmates’ benefit account at the Washington County Jail.

An attorney hired to investigate potential irregularities in the disbursement of funds from the account says, in his report, he found “unpersuasive” the explanation by the woman who made those purchases that “it was necessary to be dressed properly at work and that her work directly benefitted inmates.”

The Washington County Commissioners will meet Thursday at 1 p.m. to review and discuss a 28-page report on his investigation by Waterville attorney Peter Marchesi. He was hired by Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith to look into what Smith perceived as irregularities in disbursement of funds earmarked to benefit inmates of the county’s 48-bed jail.

Marchesi said in his report, which was released this week by Washington County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald, that his investigation could not justify the purchase of dresses, jewelry and lingerie, among other things.

Last month, Smith suspended with pay the jail’s two top administrators — Capt. Robert Gross, the jail’s longtime supervisor, and Sgt. Karina Richardson, the jail’s clerk — while the matter is being investigated.

The inmates’ benefit account collects and disburses funds deposited by jail inmates or by others on their behalf to purchase telephone time, cable TV services, snacks, stationery, stamps and other approved commissary items.

Marchesi’s investigation focused on benefit account disbursements in 2012, but he said in his analysis, in which names were redacted, that alleged misuse of the fund appears to have occurred over many years. Checks drawn on the account required the approval of Gross, Smith or County Treasurer Jill Holmes.

“There is extensive and incontrovertible documentation of widespread use of funds from the inmate fund that do not conform [with standards],” he said in his report. “I believe it is most likely that similar, nonconforming uses of the funds from the inmate account have taken place over the course of many years.”

Chris Gardner, the chairman of the three-member board of commissioners, said Wednesday he could not comment on Marchesi’s report prior to Thursday’s special meeting.

“I have seen it and reviewed it, as have the other commissioners,” he said. “It will be the center of discussion at the meeting tomorrow.”

Marchesi declined to discuss his investigation prior to Thursday’s hearing. But his report cites Maine Department of Corrections standards for Maine counties and municipalities that specifies funds in inmate benefit accounts shall “directly benefit the inmate population. Inmate benefits funds shall not be used to expand, reduce or supplement a facility’s operational budget.”

He states that his review of the records for the fund show that, between Nov. 1, 2011, and Nov. 19, 2012, the total amount of expenditures that he feels did not benefit inmates amounted to $7,272.

Non-conforming expenditures, he reported, included the bras, a bridesmaid dress, a rosette-trim halter dress and an ankle-length strapless dress.

Whether or not the person who made the purchases is entitled to reimbursement or a clothing allowance as an employee of the Sheriff’s Office, Marchesi wrote, “it is beyond question that the purchase of these items of clothing does not directly benefit the inmate population.”

He added that even assuming the employee was entitled to some form of clothing allowance, “lingerie, jewelry, motorcycle jackets, bridesmaid dresses, etc. are hardly the types of clothing which bear any legitimate or rational relationship to the performance of [the employee’s] duties.”

Other questionable expenditures, Marchesi reported, included books, half of which are not in the jail’s current library inventory, such as cookbooks, books about crafts and books about holiday decorating, none of which he said would be of interest to jail inmates. He also questioned the purchase of eight DVDs, as inmates don’t regularly view DVDs while incarcerated. Marchesi also questions use of inmate benefit funds to purchase high-end cellphones and to pay for cellphone monthly charges for two employees. Whether or not the purchases were legitimate for work-related purposes, he said, they did not provide any direct benefit to inmates and should not have been funded by the inmate account.

Five county employees, whose names were blacked out in the report released to the public, were interviewed by Marchesi during his investigation. Two of the four, he concluded, were not involved in “improper use” of the inmates’ fund. Two others, he said in his report, appear to have made use of the fund “for personal gain.” The status of the fifth person interviewed is unclear in his report.

It remains unclear whether the special meeting of the county commissioners at 1 p.m. Thursday will be an open meeting or conducted behind closed doors. That decision will apparently hinge on the wishes of those under investigation.

Attorney Jeff Davidson, who represents Richardson, and attorney Jeffrey Toothaker, who represents Gross, have both previously said their clients want the hearings to be held in open session. Richardson and Davidson could not be reached for comment Wednesday morning.

“My client has nothing to hide, and he did not do anything wrong,” Toothaker said Wednesday morning. “When you hear the whole story, you will see that he did nothing wrong. My client is not intimidated by the facts. Let the facts fall where they may.”

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/01/16/news/down-east/report-lingerie-cookbooks-cellphone-bills-paid-for-with-washington-county-inmates-benefit-fund/ printed on April 19, 2014