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Investigation into allegations of misconduct against Washington County sheriff stymied

Posted Aug. 14, 2014, at 8:51 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 15, 2014, at 12:20 p.m.
Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith during a video interview on Wednesday, May 29, 2013.
Kevin Bennett | BDN
Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith during a video interview on Wednesday, May 29, 2013. Buy Photo

MACHIAS, Maine — An investigation into allegations that Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith illegally used his office for political activity was stymied because employees in the sheriff’s office would not agree to be interviewed by the attorney conducting the probe.

The Washington County commissioners met briefly in executive session Thursday afternoon to discuss a report by the attorney they hired to conduct the investigation — Rebecca Smith of the Bangor law firm Rudman Winchell. They then met again in open session for an exchange with Smith and his attorney, Don Brown, that was at times testy and rancorous.

After exchanges back and forth for nearly an hour, however, the two sides seemed to agree they would talk further to try to iron out their differences. By that time Smith had apologized to the commissioners for antagonizing statements he made about them in an email, and when the meeting ended he shook hands with each commissioner.

Before that, however, Commissioner Chris Gardner had proposed the commissioners refer the allegations against Smith to the office of the Maine attorney general “because we can’t complete the investigation.”

However, Commissioner Vinton Cassidy said he would not support that action, saying it would be “wasting time and spinning our wheels.”

The commissioners ended up agreeing if they can discuss the allegations with Smith in the near future and be satisfied with his answers, Gardner said, “It may not need to go any further.”

The commissioner indicated that the attorney who conducted the probe, which cost $1,200, only was able to interview one former employee. Rebecca Smith’s investigation was “inconclusive,” said Gardner, because employees of the sheriff’s office would not agree to be interviewed.

“Unfortunately … you [Brown] and the sheriff … did not feel the commissioners had authority” to conduct the investigation, said Gardner. In addition, employees of the sheriff’s office were “less than encouraged to participate,” he said.

During Thursday’s meeting, it was made clear the commissioners had three areas of concern involving the sheriff, who is running for re-election as an independent, possibly having improperly engaged in political activity.

One area of concern involved the use of employees to gather personal information that was sent to state officials in support of Smith’s claims contesting the candidacy of two political opponents, Gardner said. The second involved “patrol meetings that turned into campaign meetings,” and the third concerned Smith’s use of his county sheriff’s cruiser to drive to Augusta for a hearing on his claims against the other candidates, according to the commissioner.

Smith vehemently denied the accusation about patrol meetings. “Absolutely not,” he said, although he did not directly address Gardner’s other concerns.

Brown suggested Gardner was supporting Smith’s Republican opponent, Barry Curtis, in the November election, and that he planned to work for Curtis if he wins. “This is dirty politics,” Brown declared.

Gardner replied that he has no plans to work for the sheriff’s office “under anybody.” Gardner said he has praised the accomplishments of Smith when he was due credit, and he disavowed that he was “out to get” Smith. He is “generally supportive” of Republican candidates but was not working on the Curtis campaign, Gardner told the BDN after the meeting.

The commissioners gave Smith no formal notice of the investigation and never summoned him to talk in public or private about their concerns, Brown said during the meeting. Instead, their investigator began calling employees of the sheriff’s office during their off-duty hours and attempting to arrange interviews with them.

At one point, Gardner pounded his gavel during a testy exchange between Crowley and Smith.

“Don’t make me take that away from you,” Smith said, “because I will.”

Smith sent out an email in May suggesting the commissioners had somehow contributed to the death of his chief deputy, Shawn Donahue, who died that month of a heart attack, and threatened to arrest them if they showed up for a funeral service, Gardner said. Smith, in response, said the officer’s family had requested the commissioners not participate in the service.

Cassidy also referred to an email in which Smith called one or more of the commissioners “brain dead.”

“I didn’t say that,” Smith said.

Cassidy also said he was “very hurt” — he was visibly choked up — by Smith’s comments about Donahue, whom he knew as a youngster.

Crowley also referred to the threat of arrest and asked Brown, “Do you think that’s professional?”

“If I said that, you have my sincere apology,” Smith said soon after. “I apologize.”

“I’ll accept that,” Crowley said.

“Thank you,” Smith said.

When the meeting ended, the commissioners and Smith had not agreed to a definitive meeting in the future, but the sheriff shook hands with each one before leaving.

The report on the investigation will be released publicly after county officials have an opportunity to review and redact any confidential information, said Gardner. County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald indicated it may be made available Friday.

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