June 23, 2018
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A look at Donnie Smith, the most polarizing sheriff in Maine

By Mario Moretto, BDN Staff

MACHIAS, Maine — Donnie Smith is the most controversial law enforcement figure in Maine.

During his seven years as Washington County’s sheriff, Smith has been at the center of public fights with other officials, sent countless angry late-night press releases and threatened or filed numerous lawsuits against other state agencies.

But the contentious sheriff also has presided over a renaissance of sorts within his department; more crimes have been solved, according to the stats, and the number of full-time deputies has grown while the budget has been kept trim.

Smith’s conflicts and successes both stem from his approach to being sheriff.

Smith, who was first elected in 2006, said he doesn’t disagree when words like “combative” or “aggressive” are used to describe his personality as the chief law enforcement officer in the county.

“I think people perceive me as outspoken, upfront — maybe even too upfront, too outspoken,” Smith said in a recent interview.

“Have I made mistakes? Yeah, certainly. Would I do things differently? Yeah, I would. This is an ongoing learning experience, every single day. Am I sorry? No. Am I going to apologize? No, because I’ve yet to be wrong. My approach could have been different, but I’ve learned that when you try the ‘correct’ approach, you get ignored.”

All of this means that while other sheriffs work mostly out of the spotlight, it would be difficult to find locals in Maine’s easternmost county who didn’t know their sheriff.

“We’re not that far from Hancock County and I couldn’t even tell you who their sheriff there is,” said Jeff Davidson, a Machias defense attorney who has been publicly critical of Smith. “But everyone knows Donnie.”

In the news

You don’t need to look back far to find the headlines: On May 31, Smith said he would file appeals in the decision to award two former jail employees unemployment benefits, despite questions about whether the sheriff had standing to file those appeals.

In late April, Smith threatened to sue the state’s District Court system because of the way judges’ hours are scheduled. Smith said that the three-days-per-week schedule meant letting some suspects go free before they saw a judge. It was not the first time he had threatened a lawsuit as a means of making a point.

A few months earlier, Smith was found to have improperly given an ID card that identified a Winter Harbor doctor as a fully accredited law enforcement officer, with the right to carry a concealed weapon — despite the doctor not being qualified as an officer under Maine law.

The doctor, Benjamin Newman, accidentally left a loaded handgun in the bathroom of Ellsworth’s L.L. Bean Outlet store, which ultimately resulted in a charge of reckless conduct. Legally, he shouldn’t have been carrying a concealed weapon at all.

Depending on who you ask, Smith’s fame is the result of either a hot-headed, knee-jerk approach to the sheriff’s office that critics say often amounts to “witch hunts,” or a single-minded pursuit of transparency and accountability at all costs.

“I’m a supporter of Donnie, and I think he’s done a wonderful job with everything he’s had to deal with,” said Kathy Howell, a Washington County resident and former director of the Machias Bay Area Chamber of Commerce. “We like that fact that he’s straight-up. He doesn’t talk in circles, he tells it exactly how it is. … He’s not afraid to call the shots. We need someone like that in a leadership role.”

Smith saw the department’s clearance rate — the percentage of reported crimes that ultimately saw some resolution — skyrocket after he took office. The rate climbed from a low of 19.7 percent in 2007 (the fifth-lowest in the state) to 66.3 percent in 2010, the best in the state. Though the rate dropped to 37.3 percent in 2011 — Smith said an abundance of sickness in his department that year caused the drop — Washington County still has one of the state’s best crime-solving records.

Budget documents indicate that Smith has put hundreds of thousands of unspent sheriff’s office dollars back into the general fund through financial prudence and successful grant applications.

He also has increased the number of full-time deputies from six to eight by slashing the roster of reserve deputies, whose numbers Smith said had been bloated by previous sheriffs making “political appointments.”

“If you appoint a reserve officer in Danforth, his whole family will vote for you,” Smith said. The sheriff said the budget for reserve deputies was nearly $60,000 per year when he took office, and is now down to about $5,000. He used the savings to pay for the additional two full-time deputies.

A string of controversy

Smith — a Vietnam war veteran and retired Marine — was contentious even before he was elected. As a sheriff’s deputy with 14 years experience in Washington County, he threw his hat into a hotly contested three-way sheriff’s race in 2006, when he embarked on a personal door-to-door campaign, promising transparency and accountability.

Smith billed himself as the man to clean up and rejuvenate the sheriff’s office, which he said had by that point lost the public trust.

“When I ran for office, and I worked here, people would tell me that what concerned them the most was the lack of transparency,” he said recently. “The word corruption was even thrown around. … I worked here when people would call and ask for the state police, because they didn’t want us.”

In an environment where several high-profile county officials campaigned against him or for his opponents, Smith won the election with 44 percent of the vote. His first controversy as sheriff arose just months after he took the office, when he reported several dozen firearms missing from the department’s evidence locker.

Smith found himself at odds with departed Sheriff Joseph Tibbetts, who claimed that when he left office, every gun was accounted for. Eventually, a Maine Attorney General’s office investigation exonerated Smith, finding that the “missing” guns were a result of bad bookkeeping during Tibbets’ reign.

Over the next few years, Smith would find himself at odds with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency over several incidents during which Smith said the agency was mismanaged or individual agents had acted out of line without being adequately punished.

MDEA officials replied that the agents and incidents in question had been handled, but in December 2010, Smith called on then Gov.-elect Paul LePage to fire MDEA Director Roy McKinney, who Smith claimed had “continued to cover up and allow misconduct within the agency.

“I hold my own inmates to a higher standard than Roy McKinney holds his agents,” Smith said at the time.

He went on to have a public spat with the Maine Sheriff’s Association, from which he ultimately resigned in disgust. He fires off regular late-night emails to county officials and the media, in which he uses bombastic and coarse language and spins theories about who may be covering up some scandal.

For example, in an email addressed to county commissioners, Washington County’s legislative delegation and the county jail’s board of visitors, Smith took the various officials to task for what he saw as their lack of support for his efforts to shine a light on misdeeds in the county.

“Did I get any help or support from any of you[?] Of course not. You were all too busy covering your own ass,” he wrote in the midnight missive. He ended his email with the line, “Yes, I am still kicking the shit from under the desk.”

A dedication to transparency

That last line speaks volumes about how Smith perceives his job as sheriff, and about his priorities in office. Many of his headline-grabbing antics seem, on his part, to be an earnest attempt at transparency. One of the earliest flaps he had with county officials was when he began including personnel information in his weekly reports, a practice the county attorney successfully discouraged.

For Smith, transparency is a goal pursued with abandon at whatever possible political expense or blow to his public image. Not that he seems to care much about that image.

“It’s just the way I am. If I see a wrong, I want it right,” he said. “A former sheriff gave me a piece of advice, which was good advice: ‘Until you stop trying to make everybody happy, you’ll never do this job.’ He was so right, because if you do this [job] worried about the next election, you can’t do it. You’d fail.”

Davidson, the attorney representing one of Smith’s fired employees, said “transparency” is just a front for the sheriff’s effort to paint himself as the good cop to everyone else’s bad cop. It’s politics, he said, but with a cost.

“In his zeal to make himself appear like the golden boy of Washington County, he’s burned just about every bridge law enforcement needs out here to be effective,” Davidson said.

Other critics, including some in law enforcement inside and out of Washington County, refused to comment about Smith on the record for this article. Throughout the sheriff’s career, most of his targets have attempted to remain above the fray, dealing with the accusations but not with Smith himself.

One source inside Washington County, who declined to be named because of his proximity to the sheriff, said that “everybody tends to tip-toe around the sheriff” for fear of being on the receiving end of one of his public diatribes.

The Maine Sheriff’s Association, in confronting Smith’s allegation of ethical violations by its former president and current Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross, came closest to publicly rebuking Smith.

In a press release issued after an internal inquiry cleared Ross of wrongdoing in early 2012, the group said that Smith’s accusations were nothing more than a “partial or speculative presentation of facts.”

Under investigation

Smith has yet to face any real blowback to his various crusades. In some ways, that’s a function of his job; he answers not to any office in Augusta or Machias, but directly to voters. And while he has his share of critics, he handily won his second election in 2010, with a comfortable 69 percent of the vote.

Today, Smith’s department is the subject of a Maine Attorney General’s investigation into allegedly misappropriated funds from the county jail’s “inmates benefit account.” Smith lobbied for his former jail clerk and jail administrator to be fired this year after accusing them of spending money from that account for personal gain.

Karina Richardson, the jail clerk, was fired after a lengthy hearing in January. Robert Gross, the administrator, resigned before commissioners came to a decision on whether to fire him.

But accusations that Smith himself had misappropriated money from the account were made by the accused employee’s lawyers (including Davidson, who represented Richardson) during the termination hearings.

Now, the AG’s office is investigating the entire department to see who spent what. Smith said that if he was found to have wrongly used any money, the account would be paid back for whatever items were bought. He said he would own up to whatever result comes, and strongly denies that he ever used any money for personal gain.

Screaming from the highest mountain

Smith is often accused, even by his supporters, of enjoying the spotlight. His frequent contact with the media and tendency to shoot off innuendo-laden press releases based on limited information has given him a reputation as an attention-seeker.

Even supporters say they would like to see Smith step out of the spotlight. Jonathan Southern, Eastport’s former city manager and a police officer in that city, said Smith has always acted in good faith and has successfully “cleaned up” the sheriff’s office.

“My only criticism would be that I don’t know if he has to go to the press as quickly as he does. It can come across bad for him if he goes to the press with only half a story,” he said.

Smith readily admits to using the media to make his case with the public, and to get the attention of the powers that be in Augusta and Machias, the county seat. He said that before he goes to reporters with a gripe, he already has tried the proper channels, and often receives no response.

“I found that you really don’t get much attention until you get to the highest mountain and scream the loudest,” he said.

Future scenarios

Asked whether his political aspirations include seeking offices other than the sheriff’s chair in Washington County, Smith said no. And despite an earlier report that he would run for sheriff again — which he said was based on an off-the-cuff joke misunderstood as an announcement — he said he’s not entirely sure whether his name will appear on the ballot when his term ends in 2014.

He said he would need to discuss it with his family before coming to a decision in the fall. One factor, he said, was the stress that his presence creates for his family and his deputies.

“This is not the easiest thing, and I tend not to make it easy,” he said. “I don’t sit back and wait for the next shoe to drop. I go after answers, I don’t wait for them. I certainly cause my own level of stress, which also causes stress for the agency and for my family.”

Until then, Smith said there are things he still wants to accomplish. Before he leaves office, he wants to put a dent in the rampant drug problem in Washington County. Since his public fight with MDEA, no Washington County deputy has been assigned to the agency. At one point, he had even forbidden his deputies from working with MDEA, though that policy was quickly rescinded.

But Smith recently assigned a new deputy as a “liaison” to the MDEA. It’s not a full assignment, but the sheriff said it’s a step to “mending the relationship” between his office and the drug agency.

As for his own reputation, and the cloud of controversy that seems to hang over the sheriff’s office in Machias, Smith said he’s got nothing to apologize for.

“I’ve given this 100 percent,” he said. “I haven’t always been right, I haven’t always been wrong. I’ve made my share of mistakes and I’ll own up to that. But I care deeply about this office. It’s an honor to serve here, and it’s a privilege for people to put their faith in you.”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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