Fired Washington County jail clerk awarded unemployment benefits because purchases followed ‘prevailing practice’

Posted May 22, 2013, at 3:22 p.m.
Last modified May 22, 2013, at 6:44 p.m.
Cpt. Robert Gross (foreground), the Washington County Jail administrator, and Sgt. Karina Richardson, the jail’s clerk, listen to testimony on Jan. 17 during a hearing before the Washington County commissioners.
Cpt. Robert Gross (foreground), the Washington County Jail administrator, and Sgt. Karina Richardson, the jail’s clerk, listen to testimony on Jan. 17 during a hearing before the Washington County commissioners.

MACHIAS, Maine — The former clerk of the Washington County jail who was fired for misuse of jail inmate funds was merely following “prevailing practice,” according to a Maine Department of Labor hearing officer.

The officer also ruled last week, after an all-day unemployment compensation hearing, that Karina Richardson, 50, of East Machias would receive benefits “on the grounds that she was discharged, but not for misconduct connected with her work.”

The county argued against paying unemployment benefits to Richardson, who county commissioners fired after a 12-hour hearing in January at the local courthouse. Richardson continues to appeal her firing and awaits an arbitration hearing before a state labor board in July in an effort to get reinstated with no loss of pay or benefits.

But after last Friday’s hearing in the same courthouse, a Labor Department hearing officer found that Richardson did not misuse funds and that her “understanding of the appropriate use of the funds was based upon the prevailing practice.”

The hearing officer, Alexander F. Cuprak, determined that there was a long-standing pattern of using funds from an inmate benefit account and that Sheriff Donnie Smith and then-jail administrator Robert Gross “liberally interpreted” how the funds were to be used.

Throughout Richardson’s 12 years of work at the Washington County Jail, the hearing officer determined, a variety of items “that were exceedingly remote from any benefit to the inmate population” were taken from the account. These included an air conditioner for the sheriff’s office, gift cards for a local doughnut shop given to corrections officers, vests and pullovers with the jail logo presented to corrections officers, gift cards to a local restaurant and payment for dinner at a local restaurant for the Washington County Jail board of visitors, and a $12,000 computer system used for booking inmates, he wrote in his seven-page ruling.

The inmate benefit account is funded through the inmate telephone contract and commissary sales. By state law, these funds are to be used to directly benefit the inmate population and are not to be used for any part of the jail’s operational budget.

“The county had set the precedent,” Richardson’s attorney Jeffrey Davidson said Wednesday. “The county took 50 times what Karina received. The commissioners, the sheriff, the jail administrator, everyone was using that account improperly. As the clerk, Karina didn’t make any decisions on how this money was spent.”

Management of the inmate benefit account also is being investigated by the Maine Office of the Attorney General. Brian MacMaster of the AG’s Investigation Division said Wednesday he could not comment on a pending matter.

Chris Gardner, chairman of the Washington County commissioners, said Wednesday afternoon that although the board respects the work put into the hearing by the Maine Department of Labor, the commissioners disagree with its finding.

“The arbitrator may have found Mrs. Richardson’s conduct acceptable but we do not,” he said.

Without elaborating, Gardner added that there “was a lot of information that came out in [Friday’s labor] hearing that was alarming. We hope the attorney general’s investigation will get to the bottom of this.”

Through her attorney, Richardson chose not to comment on the Labor Department ruling. County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald also would not comment.

The Department of Labor hearing officer also determined that items that Richardson received from the account — a cellphone and a $400 clothing allowance — were allowable based on the county’s previous use of the account.

At the time of her termination hearing before county commissioners, testimony focused on undergarments that Richardson had purchased with the clothing allowance. One item — a “Santa Baby” bra — was frequently referred to, while Richardson attempted to explain that many items ordered from clothing catalogs have odd or flirty names and that the bra was for work use.

The hearing officer last week determined that underwear was not excluded from the clothing allowance and that Richardson’s reimbursement for bras was appropriate.

The officer stated that at no time did Richardson sign any checks. All checks were signed by either the sheriff or the jail administrator.

The hearing report noted that at several times Sheriff Smith sought advice from other sheriffs and the Maine Department of Corrections about the account and its use. In 2009, the Department of Corrections notified Washington County that it must stop funding Richardson’s position with inmate benefit account funds. The county did stop stop paying her salary with account funds.

Then in 2010, after learning that a sheriff in a different county had been accused of improperly using inmate benefit account funds to purchase a cruiser, Smith temporarily halted all use of the account but then gave the jail administrator the authority to continue “in the same manner as they had been using it,” the report stated.

Smith initiated another investigation of the account fund in December 2012 using a private attorney. It was that attorney’s report that resulted in the accusations against Gross and Richardson.

“I’m not at all surprised by the ruling,” Davidson said. “I knew once we got before an impartial person, the truth would come out.”

Davidson said he had asked the three county commissioners — John Crowley, Chris Gardner and Vinton Cassidy — to recuse themselves from Richardson’s termination hearing in January but they refused.

At last week’s hearing, Richardson, Smith, Fitzgerald and former Jail Administrator Robert Gross attended. Richardson and Smith testified.

Gross also was accused of mismanagement of funds and his termination hearing was held in January, but he resigned before the commissioners issued a ruling.

After Cuprak’s ruling, Richardson is now cleared to receive unemployment benefits dating back to January 2013. The hearing officer further ruled that the county would be assessed a proportionate share of benefits paid.

Richardson’s appeal of her termination is set to be heard by the Maine Board of Arbitration and Conciliation on July 25 at the Washington County Courthouse.

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