MACHIAS, Maine — Sheriff Donnie Smith stunned the Washington County commissioners Thursday night when he announced that earlier in the day he had filed a lawsuit against the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency in Penobscot County under the state’s Freedom of Access law.
The commissioners said they were unaware Smith was planning a lawsuit, and they had no prior knowledge of his actions.
Smith said he is seeking information about an alleged investigation by MDEA in which one or more of Smith’s deputies may have taken or misappropriated $3,000 in drug “buy” money while on assignment with the MDEA.
Within the past five years, Smith has had three Washington County deputies assigned to MDEA, he said. He did not release their names nor did the lawsuit name them.
In December 2010, Smith wrote a letter to MDEA Director Roy McKinney asking for the records of the investigation. “I only asked for information about my deputies,” Smith said Thursday night.
On Jan. 3, 2011, Smith received a written reply from Christopher Parr, staff attorney of the Maine State Police, that stated that all the information Smith requested was considered confidential under state law.
“That is just not right,” Smith said Thursday night. “This is the public’s money, and the public has the right to know. I believe there may have been at least two felonies committed.”
In addition, Smith maintained, the confidentiality statute that the Maine State Police cited actually allows for the dissemination of investigation information to other law enforcement agencies.
“Without the MDEA information about the investigation, I cannot accuse or clear my deputies,” Smith said.
He said the $3,000 was discovered missing from the MDEA Jonesboro office more than a year ago, and he learned through an informant that the person who took the cash also returned it.
“I need to launch an investigation,” Smith told the county commissioners. “This is just wrong.”
Smith said he was particularly upset that he learned about the missing funds and his deputies’ possible involvement from a member of the public and not from MDEA officials.
“That is very inappropriate,” Smith said.
Smith’s announcement of the lawsuit clearly took the three county commissioners by surprise. They questioned him about its content and noted that Smith used Donald Brown, a Brewer attorney, and not the county’s attorney in filing the suit.
Chris Gardner, chairman of the commissioners, said after the meeting that the commissioners were not aware that Smith had filed or even was contemplating such a lawsuit “until it landed on our desk tonight.”
“It is important to note that Sheriff Smith did not file this through the county attorney,” Gardner said. “He acted in his own individual capacity. This is not an action of the county at this time.”
The lawsuit identifies “Donald Smith as Sheriff of Washington County, State of Maine” as the plaintiff.
Gardner said the commissioners will check with the county’s attorney early Friday to make sure the suit has not put the county in any financial jeopardy.
In the lawsuit, Smith is asking for copies of all records, investigations or written correspondence relating to any missing funds that were accessible by employees of the Washington County Sheriff’s Department and assigned to the MDEA for the last five years.
The MDEA has 21 days in which to respond to Smith. If no further information is forthcoming, Smith said a hearing would be held before a judge who, if the information is found not to fall under state confidentiality laws, could compel the MDEA to provide the data.
Efforts to reach a MDEA spokesman Thursday night were unsuccessful.