During ballot challenge hearing, attorney accuses Washington County sheriff of illegal political activity

Posted March 31, 2014, at 3:48 p.m.
Last modified March 31, 2014, at 5:14 p.m.
Donnie Smith
Donnie Smith

AUGUSTA, Maine — An attorney for a Republican candidate seeking to replace Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith argued Monday that Smith engaged in illegal political activity when he filed a complaint with state election officials.

Jeffrey Davidson, who represented Barry Curtis during a public hearing on Smith’s complaint, noted that Smith — an independent seeking re-election to a third term as sheriff — used his office letterhead to write his letter of complaint and signed it as sheriff. In addition, a member of his staff notarized the document.

“It is illegal for the sheriff to engage in political activity,” said Davidson, who labeled Smith’s challenge to Curtis as “illegitimate.” He asked state officials to dismiss the complaint — they did not — because Smith “abused” the office of sheriff.

State law limits the political activity of sheriffs, said Davidson.

“This would be one of those political activities that would be prohibited,” he said of using sheriff’s office supplies to challenge whether Curtis has the qualifications to run for sheriff.

Smith’s letter of complaint challenging Curtis is not valid because it constitutes illegal political activity, argued Davidson.

Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn, who conducted the hearing, noted that Smith is a registered voter “so we are going to allow him to proceed as a challenger.”

Davidson also summoned Smith as a witness and questioned him on the point. When Smith testified that he did not pay his office manager to notarize his complaint letter, Davidson suggested she provided the service as a gift, which would be illegal.

Davidson asked him if he realized that he was not allowed to engage in political activity or accept such gifts for political purposes. However, Smith’s attorney, Matthew Erickson, objected to the question, and Flynn upheld his objection, so Smith did not have to answer.

Smith did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Davidson’s allegation. Don Brown, another attorney for Smith, said the sheriff would respond “at the appropriate time.”

Brown also suggested that Davidson was engaged in a vendetta against Smith because Davidson received a professional reprimand in 2012 for taunting a Washington County sheriff’s deputy before the start of a trial in 2011.

Smith, 60, of Lubec has challenged Curtis, mainly contending that he does not have five years of supervisory employment experience. The sheriff also has challenged the candidacy of another Republican, Dale Earle, 54, of Calais, and a second hearing was scheduled on that challenge later Monday.

Much of the hearing in the Curtis case was taken up with testimony by a state police lieutenant about personnel records related to Curtis. In addition, Curtis, 60, of Cherryfield testified at length about his career with the Maine State Police and other employment.

Curtis failed to fill out state forms properly and to fill them out on time, argued Erickson in closing. Smith’s attorney also argued that Curtis lacks the five years of supervisory experience as required by state law to run for sheriff.

Smith “simply wanted to challenge” people running against him, said Davidson. Curtis has the required supervisory experience and meets the standards to seek the office of sheriff, he said.

Earle, who was defeated by Smith in the 2010 election, was not represented by legal counsel; he could not afford an attorney, he indicated.

Erickson reiterated Smith’s complaint about Earle — that he lacks five years of supervisory experience, that he never held a supervisory position with the sheriff’s office, and that he made a false statement in his filing papers.

Washington County Administrator Betsy Fitzgerald testified about county records indicating that Earle had been hired as a part-time deputy in August 1995 but was terminated in December of that year.

Smith testified that when he returned to work in the sheriff’s office in the mid-1990s, Earle was not employed as a deputy.

“We had a roster … and he was not listed,” said Smith.

Earle was terminated in connection with his being charged with violating a protective order, said Smth.

However, former Washington County Sheriff Joseph Tibbetts said Earle was deputized when Tibbetts served as chief deputy. Earle was appointed as a lieutenant, and his duties included training part-time officers, said Tibbetts. Earle served the full three years of his commission as a deputy except for being suspended for 60 days for the incident related to the protective order, but he was not convicted, said Tibbetts.

Earle testified that he has operated an excavating and trucking business since 1983 and supervised over 30 people at times, including other contractors. He also cited his experience serving in two volunteer fire departments.

Earle, who suggested that his personnel file while a deputy had been tampered with, admitted that information on his forms filing to seek office was in error: he served in the sheriff’s office three years, not six.

“Yet you swore to those as being accurate,” said Erickson.

“Was the intent there to defraud or lie?” asked Earle in his closing statement. “No, it was not.” He made a “clear, honest mistake,” said Earle.

Earle argued he did not have adequate time to respond to Smith’s complaint and to gather information and summon witnesses.

“I just think this whole thing put us at a great disadvantage, and I think that’s what Sheriff Smith intended to accomplish,” he said.

Flynn will issue a report by Wednesday in both cases, and all the parties will have a day to offer written rebuttal comments. Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap will make a decision by the end of the business day on Monday, April 7, said Flynn.

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