Washington County commissioners to review jail-fund investigation

Posted Jan. 02, 2013, at 3:43 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — The preliminary results of an investigation into allegations by Sheriff Donnie Smith that funds from a Washington County Jail inmates’ benefit account have been misappropriated will be reviewed by the Washington County board of commissioners at a special meeting Thursday.

Smith recently suspended with pay the jail’s two top administrators — Capt. Robert Gross, the jail’s longtime supervisor, and Sgt. Karina Richardson, the jail’s clerk — while the matter remains under investigation. Richardson, through her attorney, subsequently called into question Smith’s handling of the account and the way the investigation has been conducted.

The inmates’ benefit account collects and disburses funds deposited by jail inmates or by others on their behalf to purchase telephone time, cable TV services, snacks, stationery, stamps and other approved commissary items.

Smith said an independent audit of the 48-bed jail’s finances in 2011 determined that the handling of the inmate benefit account was “in compliance.” But Smith said his recent review of that account’s activity indicates years of misappropriation of funds “that could amount to thousands of dollars.”

“It’s hard to believe that 2011 audit didn’t find something because, when I looked at it, the whole thing didn’t look right to me,” Smith said when he announced the suspensions on Dec. 21. “I’m not saying these two people are guilty of anything. The reason we provide suspension with pay is that we want to preserve what we have, and they’re not out anything while we look into this further. At this point, this is a moving target.”

Speaking through her attorney, Richardson accused Smith of using the inmates’ benefit account for other than its intended purposes, including purchasing gifts for correctional officers and funding the annual employee picnic.

Smith denied the accusation.

Gross could not be reached for comment.

Repeated attempts by the Bangor Daily News to obtain a copy of the 2011 jail audit from Washington County Treasurer Jill Holmes were unsuccessful. On Wednesday, the BDN made a formal request under Maine’s Freedom of Access law for a copy of the jail audit and correspondence between Holmes and Smith about the account in question.

To conduct what Smith described as an independent investigation, the sheriff chose Waterville attorney Peter Marchesi, who has represented Washington County in the past. Smith also referred the matter to the office of the Maine attorney general.

Jeffrey Davidson, Richardson’s attorney, stated in an email to the Bangor Daily News that there is nothing “independent” about the investigation.

“The ‘independent’ investigator is an attorney hired by the sheriff and the county,” Davidson said. “His report is clearly not independent, and for obvious reasons the sheriff appears not to have been interviewed himself, while every other person who had anything to do with the account was interviewed.”

Contacted by phone Wednesday morning, Marchesi declined to discuss his investigation.

“I was not retained as legal counsel, but to put a fresh set of eyes on the situation as an independent, neutral, third-party investigator,” Marchesi said. “I’m really reluctant to comment substantially at all. These employees have certain rights under their collective bargaining agreement. I will present my findings tomorrow.”

Smith said he has known Marchesi for years. Records accessible through the state’s Governmental Ethics & Practices website show that contributors to Smith’s campaigns in 2006 and 2010 did not include Marchesi.

Michael Tausek, executive director of the Maine Board of Corrections, said he could shed no light on the handling of the inmates’ benefit account. He said that financial audits of county jails are performed by independent auditors hired by the treasurer’s office of each county with a jail, and the results are forwarded to the Maine Department of Corrections.

“We might look at jail audits in term of the budget process, in an effort to find ways of streamlining costs, given the economy,” Tausek said. “But all audits are done on the county level in terms of reviewing things like inmate accounts. We don’t see any of that.”

Smith said his department works closely with the county treasurer’s office in getting such audits completed and submitted. “But the ultimate responsibility is mine,” Smith said. “I’m the sheriff. The buck stops here.”

The Washington County board of commissioners will meet at 4 p.m. Thursday at the Washington County courthouse. Both Richardson and Gross are expected to attend.

“It is likely that Karina [Richardson] will request that the meeting be open to the public so that all of the facts can be known,” Davidson said.

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