MACHIAS, Maine — A former clerk for the Washington County Jail should not have been terminated from her job in January 2013 over allegations of misusing jail funds, a state panel has ruled.
Instead, Karina Richardson only should have been suspended six months without pay, the state Board of Arbitration and Reconciliation ruled in a decision issued on Friday.
Richardson, who lives in East Machias, should be returned to work in her original position, the panel ruled.
Richardson will be entitled to about 15 months of back pay, or about $40,000, her attorney, Jeff Davidson of Machias, estimated on Monday. She also may be due state retirement benefits and reimbursement for medical expenses she incurred after being discharged, he said, adding that “I’m not 100 percent sure what the final number is going to be.”
Her suspension without pay would be effective from the day she was suspended, according to the board. She was suspended in December 2012
“I think she was relieved that this was finally over,” Davidson said. “She finally seems somewhat exonerated.” Although the award is the final step in the grievance procedure, several related matters are yet to be resolved, he noted.
“We are very disappointed,” Sheriff Donnie Smith said in an email Monday, that the arbitrators did not uphold the decision of the county commissioners “because of the message it sends to [the] public and great people I have working at [the] sheriff’s office who do right thing.”
The award will have “no effect” on the sheriff’s office, said Smith, who had not read the decision. The position of the jail clerk was eliminated over a year ago because of a lack of state funds, he said. “Also, the sheriff’s office would not hire someone with that work history.”
Davidson was skeptical that the position had been eliminated. Another person was performing those duties until recently, he said. “My office is right across the street. I have eyes.”
If the position has been eliminated, the union contract allows for Richardson to be granted a lateral position if she has seniority, said Davidson. “I’m waiting to hear from the county about what they’re going to do with that,” he said.
Chris Gardner, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, said Monday, the commissioners disagreed with the board’s award. “We stand by the decision we made.” The commissioners have to confer with the county’s legal counsel to determine “what our options are,” Gardner said.
The commissioners asked the Attorney General’s office in early 2013 to investigate the operations of the jail. The Attorney General’s office informed the commissioners about a month ago that the case is still under consideration, Gardner said.
Smith received a report from an administrative assistant in October 2012 indicating suspicious expenditures were being paid from the inmate benefit fund, and he hired an attorney to investigate.
The inmate benefit fund contains revenues from jail commissary sales and fees from telephone service for inmates. Funds from such accounts are to be used to directly benefit inmates and not for a jail’s operating budget, according to the state Department of Corrections jail standards.
Smith suspended Richardson and Robert Gross, the jail administrator in December 2012 and recommended to the county commissioners that they be discharged. Gross resigned not long after being suspended. The commissioners held a disciplinary hearing in January 2013 and approved Smith’s recommendation to fire Richardson.
After the disciplinary hearing, the National Correctional Employees Union filed for arbitration on Richardson’s behalf with the Board of Arbitration and Conciliation. The proceedings were stayed for some time because of the request by the county commissioners for the Attorney General’s office to investigate the jail operations.
The arbitration board essentially cleared Richardson of two of three allegations of wrongdoing. Those two allegations were that Richardson used a fund intended to benefit inmates to purchase a cell phone and pay the monthly bill and that she improperly received an annual clothing allowance of $400 that was paid for from the same fund.
The third allegation was that she used the clothing allowance to buy lingerie, other articles of personal clothing, and jewelry — all items that were not necessary for her job. When Richardson submitted receipts for clothes to be reimbursed per her allowance, she included receipts both for work-related items, as well as personal ones. She does not believe she was improperly reimbursed for personal purchases, the board noted, because her work-related clothing receipts only amounted to $400 per year.
Including receipts for personal items showed “poor judgment on her part,” the board found. “The inclusion of the receipts for these items for reimbursement can only be deemed, at least, inappropriate and, at most, a reflection of incompetency.”
It was not clear, the panel noted, whether Richardson was ever reimbursed for the purchases of personal clothing. However, the board ruled that her back pay should be reduced by $600, the approximate cost of the personal items for which she was reimbursed.
Richardson’s “inadequate accounting of her authorized clothing allowance reimbursement is actionable conduct that warrants discipline,” the board ruled. A “stiff penalty” is in order, it said, because she included receipts that were not justified, creating the appearance of impropriety and tarnishing the image of county government in the eyes of the public.
In calling for a six month suspension, the panel said Richardson’s personnel record — she was employed full-time as the jail clerk for 10 years — mitigated in her favor. She had an excellent work record and evaluations and was considered dependable and honorable. “There is nothing in her personnel record suggesting that she has been anything but a valuable employee,” the board said.
According to Davidson, Richardson did nothing wrong except for the way she itemized her clothing purchases for reimbursement. The cell phone was an authorized purchase, and her clothing allowance also was proper, noted Davidson, who said his client would not talk to reporters.
As to the allegations surrounding the cell phone, the jail administrator authorized and directed Richardson to purchase a cell phone and to pay the monthly bills from the inmate benefit fund, the board found. Although she admitted using the cell phone for personal calls, which was not entirely proper, the monthly bill was not impacted by those personal calls because the charges always were a fixed amount. Therefore, she did not violate a county personnel policy forbidding the use of equipment for personal use or gain, according to the board.
The board also noted that Department of Corrections jail standards applying to inmate benefit accounts were never explained to Richardson or other jail employees. “Expenses from the inmate benefit fund account, authorized by the jail administrator and the sheriff over a course of years, established a prevailing practice that justified the purchase of a variety of items unrelated to the direct benefit of inmates,” the board found.
Likewise, the panel ruled that the clothing allowance she received did not violate the state or county policies because it was authorized by her superior. “Due to the failure on the part of the county to clearly instruct anyone, including Ms. Richardson, about the limitations of the inmate benefit fund, and the prevailing practice by the jail administrator and the sheriff of using the inmate benefit fund for a wide range of items, fault cannot be established on the part of Ms. Richardson for receiving the benefit authorized by her supervisor.”
Richardson filed for unemployment after being discharged. State officials later ruled she had not been discharged for misconduct and granted her benefits. The county appealed the decision, but it was upheld.
It was not immediately clear how the board’s award would impact the unemployment benefits Richardson already received.