MACHIAS, Maine — Somebody’s lying.
That’s according to allegations made by both sides during the first of two public hearings held Thursday by Washington County commissioners concerning a request by Sheriff Donnie Smith that two of his employees be fired for what Smith claims has been their mismanagement of an inmate benefits fund.
Both employees, Cpt. Robert Gross, the Washington County jail administrator, and Sgt. Karina Richardson, the jail’s clerk, testified during a five-hour afternoon session at the Washington County Courthouse that Smith was aware of how the funds were being spent and even authorized expenditures on occasion. Both claimed in their testimony that Smith made inappropriate use of checks drawn on the fund.
Smith flatly denied those allegations Thursday.
Gross’ attorney, Jeffrey Toothaker of Ellsworth, labeled Smith’s denial as “bull” and accused the sheriff of lying in his closing argument.
Last month, Smith suspended Gross and Richardson with pay while the matter was investigated by Waterville attorney Peter Marchesi. Marchesi was hired by the county to look into what Smith perceived as irregularities in disbursement of funds earmarked to benefit inmates of the county’s 48-bed jail.
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. Expenditures are supposed to directly benefit inmates and Gross had sole authority to tap into the fund.
According to Marchesi’s report, Maine Department of Corrections standards for Maine counties and municipalities specify that 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.”
Marchesi’s review of the records for the fund show that between Nov. 1, 2011, and Nov. 19, 2012, the total expenditures that he says did not benefit inmates amounted to $7,272.
Marchesi’s investigation also showed that inmate benefit funds were used by both Gross and Richardson to purchase cellphones and computers. Richardson also was provided with a $400-a-year clothing allowance, although Marchesi said she is not eligible for one. She used her most recent allowance while purchasing clothing items ranging from a leather jacket to lingerie, according to Marchesi.
Gross testified for an hour during his hearing, which began at 1 p.m. and continued until 5:45 p.m. Smith testified for 50 minutes, while Marchesi and Richardson were each on the stand for about 30 minutes. Their testimony was followed by closing arguments after the commissioners met in executive session.
A second executive session convened at 5:45 p.m., with Richardson’s hearing scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m.
Chris Gardner, chairman of the county commissioners, said both hearings would be completed Thursday, regardless of how late Richardson’s session goes. The commissioners planned to meet again in executive session after both hearings to vote on Smith’s call for terminations.