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Washington County commissioners investigating sheriff’s office

Kevin Bennett | BDN
Kevin Bennett | BDN
Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith speaks during a video interview Wednesday, May 29, 2013.
By Tim Cox, BDN Staff

MACHIAS, Maine — The Washington County commissioners are expected to meet privately Thursday to discuss the results of an investigation they’ve launched into the sheriff’s office.

Chris Gardner, chairman of the commission, characterized the investigation, which began at least two months ago, as a “wholesale look” at the sheriff’s office, under Sheriff Donnie Smith.

The chairman linked the investigation to Smith’s unsuccessful ballot eligibility challenge of two Republicans, who sought their party’s nomination for the sheriff’s post in Maine’s June primary election.

Smith, who is running for re-election as an independent candidate, challenged the qualifications of the two candidates and participated in a hearing on his claims in Augusta in March. State officials ultimately ruled both candidates met the minimum qualifications and placed their names on the ballot.

To defend his position, Smith provided personnel documents that contained Social Security numbers of former Washington County employees to the Secretary of State’s office, which held a hearing on the challenge.

Following the hearing, documents related to Smith’s legal challenge were voluntarily distributed by the state to the Bangor Daily News. All of them, including the portions containing the Social Security numbers, were briefly accessible via a link on bangordailynews.com until they were removed.

This posting prompted the county commissioners to hire an attorney to investigate the sheriff’s office, according to Gardner.

Gardner could not name the attorney who was conducting the investigation because the lawyer was retained independently by the county’s legal counsel; the county has not yet been billed, so he did not know the cost of the investigation.

Commissioners first referred to the investigation and Smith’s response to it in the minutes of their meeting on June 23, which followed an executive session to discuss a legal matter.

During that meeting, they declined to pay an invoice for $2,016 for legal fees for Smith’s attorney, which was explained in the meeting minutes: “This invoice relates to Mr. Brown’s work for the Sheriff in opposing an investigation by the board.”

“The investigation is being conducted under the Commissioners’ authority to review the Sheriff’s operations and shall ensure that the law enforcement functions required under the budget are being adequately performed,” a statement in the minutes read.

The commissioners also noted they informed Smith in a letter dated June 3, 2013, he should consult with the commissioners before engaging any attorney for legal work Smith intended to be paid for with county funds.

He did not, according to the commissioners, so Brown’s legal services were not authorized.

The commission determined the legal work did not relate to the sheriff’s public duties, according to the minutes.

“We find the invoice is not a necessary incidental expense that is just and proper, and incurred in the performance of the Sheriff’s public duties,” the minutes read.

It was “not necessary” for Smith to oppose the investigation, according to commissioners’ minutes.

“It’s an ongoing matter,” Gardner said earlier this month. When the investigation is concluded, “We certainly will be forthcoming with whatever information we can provide.”

Allegations regarding the sheriff’s office were brought to the county commissioners, Gardner said, that “we hope are not true.”

“It is our hope … that we can put some of these allegations to rest,” he added.

Gardner and Commissioner Vinton Cassidy indicated Wednesday the commissioners would have more to say following their meeting Thursday. Commissioner John Crowley could not be reached for comment.

Smith was contacted by the BDN via email Tuesday evening and by telephone Wednesday morning about the investigation, but he did not respond to inquiries.

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