Amid ongoing finance probe, Donnie Smith says he will seek another term as Washington County sheriff

Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith listens to a question during his testimony in January at a hearing before the Washington County commissioners. Smith accused two jail employees of mismanaging funds from an inmate benefits account and recommended that they be fired.
Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith listens to a question during his testimony in January at a hearing before the Washington County commissioners. Smith accused two jail employees of mismanaging funds from an inmate benefits account and recommended that they be fired.
Posted March 04, 2013, at 6:14 p.m.
Last modified March 04, 2013, at 7:01 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — Despite two tumultuous terms, including overseeing two recent firings and one resignation within the upper echelons of his department, and an ongoing state investigation, Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith said Monday he’ll seek a third four-year term in 2014.

Since he was first elected in 2006, Smith has sustained his high-profile persona as a no-nonsense, outspoken lawman who over the past seven years has been crossways at times with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, the Maine Sheriffs’ Association and Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross.

“Will I seek re-election? Most likely,” Smith said Monday. “I don’t see any reason why not. This has been an ongoing, learning experience, and I’ve tried to make it as transparent as possible. I’ve learned that you have to take the good with the bad.”

Smith said “the bad” includes the past few months, during which Smith fired Michael St. Louis, who had been his chief deputy since 2007. Smith also brought claims of financial misappropriation against Washington County Jail Administrator Robert Gross and Jail Clerk Karina Richardson. Smith accused both Gross and Richardson of misappropriating funds from an inmate benefit fund to pay for personal items, ranging from expensive cellphones to intimate apparel.

Richardson was subsequently terminated in January by the county’s three-member commissioners. Within days Gross resigned. Both Richardson and Gross testified in a public hearing on the matter that Smith was well aware, and in some cases authorized, the expenditures that Smith deemed questionable. Both Gross and Richardson also claimed Smith was among those who personally benefited from the inmates’ fund. Smith denies those allegations.

At the request of the county commissioners, the investigative division of the Office of the Maine Attorney General is conducting an independent probe of the use and alleged abuse of the inmate benefit fund at the Washington County Jail.

Chris Gardner, chairman of the county commissioners, said he was told Monday morning by County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald that her office has been in contact by phone with AG investigators and will deliver to them this week documents that have been requested, including check registers associated with the inmates’ benefit account.

Fitzgerald said Monday that the investigators have not yet commenced one-on-one interviews with county employees.

A call to Brian MacMaster, who oversees the AG’s investigation division, resulted in a return call from a spokesperson, who said the division does not comment on ongoing investigations.

Smith said Monday that the reshuffling of the top tier of his administrative staff has been “an unfortunate experience.”

While Smith in January characterized the reason for St. Louis’ dismissal as “burnout,” the sheriff included St. Louis on Monday in describing three members of his command staff as having been “disloyal,” the others being Gross and Richardson.

“These are people who I trusted who were just not loyal,” he said. “It’s a pretty dark day when that happens, but you pick up and move forward. We knew we had to get through this, and we decided we could. And we did, which I think shows the integrity of this agency overall.”

After St. Louis left, Smith hired Baileyville Police Chief Shawn Donahue as his new chief deputy. Patrol Sgt. Rich Rolfe was recently hired to replace Gross as jail administrator, creating a vacancy in the department’s eight-officer patrol staff. Richardson’s jail clerk duties are now being handled by a temporary staffer while the hiring process plays out.

With Rolfe’s hiring came a promotion to the rank of captain, Smith said. Rolfe has been trained as a K-9 handler of drug-sniffing dogs and will maintain his involvement in that aspect of the sheriff’s department.

Meanwhile, the financial oversight of the inmates’ benefit fund, which generally has a balance between $40,000 and $60,000 that is mostly generated by a hefty surcharge on inmates’ phone call activity, has been transferred from the sheriff’s department to the office of County Treasurer Jill Holmes. While the upper management of the sheriff’s department can now request disbursements from the inmates’ benefit account, checks can only be written by Holmes or County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald.

“It’s a much cleaner arrangement,” Smith said Monday. “I know that’s not how it’s done in other places, but frankly I don’t care.”

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