MACHIAS, Maine — Washington County Jail Administrator Robert Gross has resigned after being suspended last month for alleged personal use of an in-house fund designed to benefit inmates of the 48-bed Washington County Jail.
Because of his resignation, a termination hearing that had been scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 24, won’t be necessary.
Capt. Gross, 62, who had been the jail’s administrator since 1995 and worked for the county since 1988, delivered a letter of resignation to County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald on Friday, Jan. 18, the day after he testified in a termination hearing for Sgt. Karina Richardson, 50, the jail’s clerk, who also was accused of dipping into the fund. Gross and Richardson were accused of inappropriately spending money from the fund to buy items for personal use, including high-end cellphones, computers, accessories, and in Richardson’s case, lingerie.
After a contentious, 11-hour hearing on Jan. 17, Richardson was fired by unanimous vote of the three Washington County commissioners.
Both Gross and Richardson said during that hearing that Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith authorized the expenditures at issue in their suspensions, a claim that Smith denies.
“I’m not at all surprised,” Donald Brown, the Brewer attorney who represented Smith in the Jan. 17 hearing, said Tuesday of Gross’s resignation. “It’s probably the best result for [Gross].”
“I really don’t think that I did anything wrong,” Gross said Tuesday afternoon in a phone interview. “The only reason I pulled the plug is how can I go back to work for a man who gave me permission to do something and then said he didn’t? Even if I won, I was going to lose.”
Smith requested both termination hearings. He said that he didn’t find out about Gross’s resignation until it was revealed by Fitzgerald during a scheduling meeting on Tuesday morning. Fitzgerald said Tuesday that she should have notified Smith sooner, but was “asleep at the switch” given that last Thursday’s hearing lasted almost until midnight.
Smith said it will take some time to post and fill both positions. Richardson’s old job, he said, will be scaled back to part-time, because the inmate benefit fund, which she managed as the jail’s clerk, is now being administered by the office of the county treasurer.
The inmate benefits 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. The fund usually has a balance of between $40,000 and $60,000. Expenditures are supposed to directly benefit inmates of the 48-bed jail, and Gross had lead discretion as to how to tap into the fund. Smith also is a legal signatory.
A recent investigation requested by Smith into use of the fund shows that, between Nov. 1, 2011, and Nov. 19, 2012, the total expenditures that did not appear to directly benefit inmates amounted to $7,272.
“I don’t care what the Department of Corrections thinks about this being turned into a part-time position, if they can’t do a better audit than that,” Smith said Tuesday. A Department of Corrections 2011 analysis of an independent audit of the jail’s inmate benefit account said the fund was “in compliance.”
Many of Smith’s critics say there’s no way the sheriff was unaware of the misappropriation of inmate benefit funds. Smith denies that as well as allegations by both Gross and Richardson during hearings last week that he also was dipping into the fund for his personal gain.
“All I can say is that, as soon as I knew what was going on, I got on it,” Smith said Tuesday. “I count on my people to do their jobs correctly and for audits to make sure that they are. If I had known about this sooner, I would have acted sooner.”
County commissioner Chris Gardner said following last Thursday’s hearing that the county had requested an investigation by the Maine Attorney General’s Office. Brown said Tuesday he would be surprised if investigators from the state Attorney General’s office pursue an investigation.
“If the AG is going to open this can of worms, they’ll have to take a look at all 16 counties,” he said.
Gardner said Tuesday afternoon that he has been in contact with Brian McMaster, who heads the AG’s office investigations division.
“We will be forwarding to them all of the investigative material in this case,” Gardner said. “[McMaster] has expressed that he would look into this on our behalf. We hope to come to a concludable end to this pretty soon.”
A call to McMaster late Tuesday afternoon was not immediately returned.
Smith said that as sheriff, he is ultimately responsible for the inmate benefit fund, but also said that he has received no guidance from Augusta on what types of expenditures directly benefit inmates.
“They want to run this from Augusta, without setting any standards and leaving the sheriff with any problems,” Smith said. “When I ask them what we can spend these funds on, I get no response. At all. The next time the [Department of Corrections] wants to come down for an inspection, I want to see their procedures and their policies. I’m not going to live through this again. We have to move on.”