MACHIAS, Maine — Termination. Resignation. Now, investigation.
The investigative division of the office of the Maine attorney general has agreed to undertake an independent probe of the use and alleged abuse of an inmate benefit fund at the Washington County Jail.
The jail’s longtime clerk, Karina Richardson, and administrator Robert Gross, who had served even longer than Richardson, both lost their jobs last month after an in-house investigation alleged they had used the fund for purchases that didn’t directly benefit inmates.
Richardson and Gross accused Sheriff Donnie Smith, who requested the in-house probe, of not only authorizing the expenditures but also using the funds himself to make questionable purchases.
Chris Gardner, chairman of the Washington County commissioners, which requested the attorney general’s investigation, confirmed Monday that the probe is under way, but said he’s not clear what the scope and timeline will be.
“We’ve turned over much of the paperwork that was involved in the initial investigation,” Gardner told the Bangor Daily News. “At this point it’s their investigation. Everyone within county government, including myself, is subject to investigation. That’s how I want to see this county run.”
Gardner said he didn’t know how long it would take to complete the investigation, which is being overseen by Brian MacMaster, the attorney general’s criminal division chief of investigations.
“We are not the ones asking the questions such as, ‘When will this happen?’” Gardner said. “We shouldn’t be asking questions of them; they should be asking questions of us. It’s their investigation.”
Multiple calls to MacMaster were not immediately returned Monday afternoon.
Kaylene Waindle, a special assistant in the AG’s office, did confirm that an investigation is under way but said, “We cannot offer any further comment on a pending investigation.”
The in-house investigation by Waterville attorney Peter Marchesi alleged that jail funds were used by Richardson to purchase items and services from cellphone hardware and services to lingerie, including an assortment of push-up bras. Gross was accused of using the fund to buy a computer and a cellphone for his personal use.
During the Jan. 17 hearing, Smith denied allegations by Richardson and Gross that he had authorized their purchases or made questionable purchases himself with money from the inmate benefit fund. That fund generally carries a balance of $40,000 to $60,000, most of it generated by surcharges on inmates’ use of telephones.
The allegations and counter-accusations prompted county commissioners to request an attorney general’s investigation.
Smith said Monday he has “no idea” what the timeline for the state’s investigation may be.
“I asked Peter Marchesi to look into the use of the inmate fund,” Smith said Monday afternoon. “Mr. Marchesi found areas where the funds [possibly] should have been taken from another line item by the county. He also found two employees were using this fund for personal gain.
“These employees were neither myself, the county commissioners or anyone else in Washington County government. If the AG finds something different, then we will stand corrected and take responsibility.”
The attorney general’s investigation division carries out criminal and civil investigations. Its six investigators conduct investigations of fraud and the use of deadly force by police officers. The division is the primary investigative agency in the state for alleged public corruption.