MACHIAS, Maine — Washington County commissioners fired Karina Richardson after determining Thursday that the county jail clerk had inappropriately spent funds from an inmate benefits account to buy items such as a high-end cellphone, computer and lingerie for personal use.
Richardson, 50, said after being fired that she expected to lose her job after Sheriff Donnie Smith last month suspended her and Jail Administrator Robert Gross, 62, accusing them of personally benefiting from funds misappropriated from the jail’s inmate benefits account that both have overseen for years. But she said she hoped that in the process of defending herself during daylong deliberations before the three county commissioners Thursday she has helped to salvage her reputation within the community.
“I didn’t do anything that wasn’t authorized by my supervisor,” Richardson said in her testimony. “I didn’t sign checks, and I’m not the one who is in the position to make those types of decisions all by myself. I believe everything that I’ve done I had permission to do.”
Richardson said the media’s focus on her bra selections depicted her as a “whore.” She said she did not expect county reimbursement for her lingerie purchases.
“My reputation has been ruined over a bra,” she said.
At 11 p.m. Thursday, after unanimously authorizing Richardson’s firing, the commission cited the late hour and 10 hours of on-again, off-again sworn testimony that began at 1 p.m. as the reason for recessing the hearing for one week. The commission plans to consider Gross’ fate on Thursday, Jan. 24, at a special meeting at 4 p.m.
Commission chairman Chris Gardner also told reporters afterward that the county had asked the state attorney general’s office to investigate for potential criminal charges.
The inmate benefits 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 of the 48-bed jail, and Gross had lead discretion as to how to tap into the fund. Sheriff Smith also is a legal signatory.
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.”
Both Gross and Richardson elected to have their termination hearings held in public sessions, although each had the option of having them conducted behind closed doors. That decision attracted significant print and TV media attention, but only a handful of spectators.
A recent investigation requested by the sheriff and conducted by Waterville attorney Peter Marchesi supports Smith’s claims that funds from that account, which typically has a balance of $40,000-$60,000, were used to purchase high-end cellphones and computers for both Gross and Richardson. The investigation also shows Richardson was paid a $400 annual clothing allowance. She used her most recent clothing allowance to apply to purchasing more than $600 in clothing items, ranging from a leather jacket to lingerie, including a “Santa Baby” novelty plunge bra and four other push-up bras, according to receipts provided to Marchesi.
The commissioners concluded that none of those disbursements was appropriate because they didn’t directly benefit inmates.
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.
Thursday’s hearings alleged that someone in the mix of events — Richardson or Gross, who both claim Smith authorized some of the targeted disbursements, or Smith — is lying.
Gross and Richardson 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 under oath during the deliberations Thursday.
“There is absolutely no evidence that Sheriff Smith acted inappropriately,” said Donald Brown, Smith’s attorney who spoke on behalf of his client after the hearings. “If he had been inappropriate, he would not have initiated the investigation. … Sheriff Smith has done nothing improper; that was just a red herring.”
Brown said he was stunned by Richardson’s “level of arrogance” during her interview with Marchesi, “after being caught with her hand in the cookie jar.” She explained that she was both angry and upset by realizing minutes into the interview that she had been deemed a “target.”
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 to discuss legal strategy.
A second executive session convened at 5:45 p.m., with Richardson’s hearing gaveled into session at 6:30 p.m. The often contentious presentations by opposing counsel lasted until 9:40 p.m., when the commissioners went into executive session to discuss their legal options.
Richardson also was accused of buying books and DVDs using money from the account, many of which Marchesi said could not be found within the jail facility. When asked during his investigation if any of those items were at her home, Richardson said no.
Within hours of her interview with Marchesi last month, Richardson was seen on a jailhouse surveillance camera entering the facility with her daughter. The two women were carrying a large box and a shopping bag, which Richardson testified were filled with books and DVDs that she had taken home.
Her attorney objected to showing the video to commissioners on Thursday, claiming that tactic was “tawdry” and “salacious.” Davidson accused Smith’s attorney of “making a show out of this” for the benefit of TV news reporters covering the hearings. The 40-second video was shown nonetheless, capturing Richardson unlocking a storage closet off the jail’s public lobby and leaving the items inside before re-locking the room.
Richardson said after the hearing that the finding to terminate a job she’s held since 2003 was not a surprise.
“My lawyer [Jeff Davidson] told me from the beginning that this was how it would go,” she said. “I came here to keep the record straight, which was more important than my job. This has been really difficult, and I’ve been under a lot of stress. I live in a small community [East Machias], and I think I will have a tough time getting a fair shake.”
Richardson also was upset by Marchesi asking her during his interview last month about her relationship with Gross, which she interpreted as asking whether they were having an affair. A transcript shows that Gross was not asked the same question by Marchesi. Richardson told Marchesi in that interview that her relationship with Gross was “professional only.”
“I’m glad it’s over,” Richardson said minutes after the decision. “I’ve thought about appealing, but I can’t get my reputation back. I don’t know about dragging this out.”
Richardson was a member of the National Correctional Employees Union, which had a staffer sit in on her interview with Marchesi. A union lawyer from Portland arrived Thursday at the Machias County Courthouse a few minutes before the 1 p.m. session began, but left within a few minutes, opting not to participate.
“They had a different outlook as to how to approach this,” Richardson said. “They forgot who they were working for. I paid my dues all these years, and I had a right to make a decision on how I wanted to defend this, and I wanted Jeffrey [Davidson] as my first chair.”
“They didn’t want to have Karina have her own attorney in addition to theirs,” Davidson said. “They didn’t want to make trouble, which is not my style.”
A weary Chris Gardner, chairman of the Washington County Board of Commissioners, said after Thursday’s hearings that the investigation into the handling of the inmate benefits fund will continue.
“We’ll be continuing our investigation into this,” Gardner told reporters. “We have officially asked the attorney general’s office to come down here and do a complete investigation, a top-to-bottom review. The purpose of AG’s office involvement is to address the allegations that have been made. No one will escape scrutiny in this matter, including me.”