‘I never discouraged anybody’: Washington County sheriff disputes investigator’s report of stonewalling

Posted Aug. 19, 2014, at 9:48 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith told an employee not to tell an investigator about sheriff’s office operations, according to a report of a county-funded probe that looked at allegations of political activity in Smith’s office.

Smith also did not comply with a request under the Freedom of Access Act to provide emails sent to his staff, according to the report from investigator Rebekah Smith.

The sheriff, however, refutes any contention he dissuaded his staff from speaking with the investigator. The lawyer’s report was released by the county on Monday.

“I never discouraged anybody,” said the sheriff. He also disputes that he would instruct an employee not to cooperate in the investigation.

“That’s not what (the report) says at all,” said Smith. He told his employees they were free to talk to anyone, he said.

The investigator called several employees of the sheriff’s office by phone when they were off duty, but they either declined to be interviewed or did not return her messages.

Rebekah Smith did not return a phone call from the BDN on Tuesday asking to clarify comments in her report.

The investigation, launched by the Washington County Commission, cost the county $1,200, and its report includes the responses of various employees, although personal information was redacted.

It refers to an employee who “informed the investigator that the sheriff had indicated he was not to speak with investigator; later on May 12, he left the investigator a voicemail message stating that the sheriff asked him to clarify that he was not to speak to the investigator during sheriff’s office hours and if he spoke to the investigator during non-work hours he was not to speak about the operations of the sheriff’s office.”

The report also refers to a letter conveying a Freedom of Access Act request through the sheriff’s attorney, Don Brown, seeking emails sent to sheriff’s office employees instructing them to attend staff meetings in April and emails sent to employees in May or June directing them how to respond to inquiries from the investigator.

“No reply was received,” the report stated.

Smith said he complied with the FOAA request by providing an email message to the investigator.

Smith also provided the Bangor Daily News with the text of an email he said he sent to his staff, informing them of the investigation and questioning the legality of the probe.

That email directed staff not to talk with the investigator while employees were on duty, but indicated they were free to talk to her while they weren’t at work. Smith asked to be informed of any interviews.

“The commissioners have given conflicting and contradictory reasons for the investigation,” Smith said in his email to staff. “I do not believe the commissioners have any legal authority to conduct any investigation. I do not want the illegal investigation to interfere with the operations of the sheriff’s office. Therefore, I am instructing all employees to not talk to any investigator while working. Obviously, each of you can talk to whoever you want on your own time. I would appreciate being informed if anyone is contacted.”

The county also asked the sheriff to cooperate in the investigation and allow “full access to any person or document deemed to be relevant,” according to the report.

It indicates the county “provided a nonretaliation guarantee for Sheriff’s Department employees who participated in interviews on its own behalf and advised the Sheriff of the same.”

County commissioners met privately last week to discuss the report, then publicly discussed it with Sheriff Smith and his attorney in a fairly tempestous exchange but concluded on a cooperative note.

The investigation was to examine if the sheriff’s office was involved in political activity and to scrutinize the release of documents that included Social Security numbers of county employees. Those documents were provided to state officials in support of claims by Smith — who is seeking re-election as an independent — contesting the candidacy of a political opponent.

County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald also revealed Tuesday that she informed Smith of the commission’s investigation in a letter on April 28.

However, Smith said, the letter was not discovered until some time in May in an interdepartmental mailbox, and he was not aware of the investigation until after attorney Smith began calling employees when they were off duty and making inquiries.

Chris Gardner, chairman of the county commissioners, recalled that last week’s meeting of the commissioners with Smith ended with a tentative agreement that the two sides would talk further and handshakes all around.

“We’re going to take the sheriff at his word that he will have some answers for us,” said Gardner.

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,” but the other commissioners disagreed.

The commissioners also refused to pay for Brown’s legal services representing the sheriff in the investigation. Brown was paid by Smith personally, according to the sheriff.

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