Then-Kennebec County Sheriff's Office Detective Al Morin, left, looks on as a man is arrested in Augusta, Maine, in this 2008 file photo. Now the chief deputy, the county conducted an internal investigation into Morin between November 2019 and April 2020. Credit: Andy Molloy / Kennebec Journal via AP

Kennebec County investigated its second highest-ranking law enforcement officer, hearing from employees who reported he targeted people based on their sex and sexual orientation. But the sheriff has not formally disciplined the No. 2 officer, leaving current and former staff bewildered and dispirited, according to records and interviews.

The law firm Bernstein Shur conducted an internal investigation into Chief Deputy Alfred Morin between November 2019 and April 2020, costing the county more than $17,000, according to the firm’s invoice. When asked for any records of discipline against the chief deputy, the county said it had none as of Feb. 3.

The chief deputy remained on the job during the five-month probe, which concluded six months before Sheriff Ken Mason’s reelection in the fall. The internal investigation has not previously been made public.

Though Morin wasn’t punished, and no officials informed staff of what the investigation concluded, interviews with eight current and former employees of the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office and Kennebec County jail painted a picture of a workplace culture where people fear retaliation if they share concerns.

The current and former county employees, three of whom were interviewed for the internal investigation, told the Bangor Daily News Morin kept a list of women who had resigned and titled it “completed,” made sexual comments inappropriate for the workplace and stated assumptions about people’s sexual orientations.

One former employee who wasn’t interviewed for the investigation said Morin told her women don’t do well in positions of power. Another said he believes Morin and Mason conspired to oust him after he supported Mason’s opponent for sheriff.

“To have [Morin] not even disciplined for it, I blame the sheriff,” said one staff person who was interviewed for the internal investigation and asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation. “If they have to pay an outside agency to do an internal investigation, then that person probably shouldn’t be working in law enforcement — certainly in a position of power. I know that they’re not going to pay for someone to come in if they don’t have good reason to do it.”

Kennebec County Sheriff Ken Mason, right, is pictured in 2019. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Those interviewed weren’t sure how the investigation began, only that human resources invited them to participate, and they did.

While there is no record of Mason disciplining his No. 2 officer, whom he appointed, the sheriff privately assured the county commissioners he had “taken care of the issue,” said Patsy Crockett, chair of the Kennebec County commissioners. That comment left commissioners with the impression the matter had been resolved, she said. He did not tell them how he had handled it.

Commissioners could not step in if they wanted to, however, because they have limited power over the sheriff’s actions and those of his subordinates, though they are responsible for county finances. Staff said they know commissioners have limited recourse, which is why they have not brought their complaints to the elected officials, leaving the employees feeling trapped.

Still, Crockett said she trusts Mason, who is also elected, to respond. “I do have faith in [the sheriff], and I’m sure when he read that report that he would not have been pleased with it either,” Crockett said. “The things that were said in the report, if they’re correct, it’s definitely not OK. However if we’re not the person who’s responsible, for us to jump in there, we can’t.”

The lack of a public resolution in the investigation, and the lack of an explanation of the findings to employees who were interviewed, underscores the often impenetrable nature of police accountability in Maine where employee investigative reports funded with public dollars are secret, and county oversight is restricted.

Kennebec County jail and offices in Augusta. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Morin did not respond to requests for comment and emailed questions.

In response to a list of questions, Mason, the sheriff, said a reporter had been fed disinformation but declined to elaborate.

“I will say, in general terms and without reference to any particular person or situation, that I take very seriously any form of harassment or discrimination, whether it occurs in the workplace or anywhere else. If complaints are made they are addressed appropriately based on the unique and individual circumstances presented by each complaint,” Mason said.

Commissioner Nancy Rines read the investigator’s report and, while she said she can’t talk about an employee’s behavior, acknowledged that the report pointed to workplace “issues” such as sexual harassment and racism.

“Was it just about an individual employee? No,” she said.

The county organized an anti-sexual harassment training for staff, Rines said, and has been “making significant efforts to heighten people’s awareness of any kind of cultural or sexual harassment.”

Some employees aren’t sure that’s the case. At the anti-sexual harassment training in December, Morin helped introduce the speakers, two staff members said, standing in front of those who had reported what they described as his bullying.

Commissioner George Jabar did not respond to a request for comment.

A 2020 survey of staff also pointed to broad concerns about leadership.

In the survey, discussed at a Feb. 2 commissioners meeting, county supervisors and staff at the jail and sheriff’s office said employee morale and communication from their administration and department heads are worse now than two years ago. All other departments — such as administration, finance, the district attorney’s office, deeds and probate — rated communication and employee morale as staying the same or slightly improving.

Employees at the jail and sheriff’s office generally said they are not comfortable reporting concerns or challenging the way things are done, according to the survey. While they said they respect their direct supervisors, they believe favoritism is a problem, and they do not have faith the administration and department heads will do what is best for the county long-term.

The investigating law firm’s invoice does not describe Morin’s alleged misconduct, and full investigative reports into personnel matters are not public under Maine law. If public employees such as police officers are disciplined, the final written decision about their discipline is public. However, since the sheriff did not formally discipline Morin, there is no public description of his behavior.

So the BDN interviewed current and former employees to understand their complaints.

People described Morin not taking women seriously and commenting on their physiques, making them feel threatened and demeaned.

Kennebec County investigated its second highest ranking law enforcement officer for a range of alleged misconduct. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Current and former staff alleged he made sexual comments inappropriate for a workplace, such as telling officers practicing shooting their firearms to get down on their knees in a provocative way.

At one point, someone took a picture of a white board in Morin’s office where he had written the names of three high-ranking women under the word “completed.” They had all resigned. At least one person told the investigator about the list and gave it to the BDN. Today, there are no women on the command staff.

One of the women wrote a letter to announce her resignation effective in January 2017. In it, then-Lt. Laura Briggs described how she was “deeply saddened and distressed” to leave but that she was “unable to cope with the stress” of working for Mason and Morin, after working under three previous sheriffs. “Unfortunately I can no longer work in an organization where I do not feel supported,” she wrote in the letter obtained by the BDN.

Three people shared their discomfort hearing the chief deputy make assumptions about employees’ sexual orientation, such as falsely claiming certain staff were in same-sex relationships or attributing the reason for someone’s actions to what he believed their sexual orientation to be.

In some instances current and former employees shared specific examples of Morin’s comments and behavior with the BDN that they had also shared with the investigator, but they declined to state them publicly, even anonymously, because they believed Morin would figure out who had spoken and retaliate.

Some also questioned the point of speaking out again if the commissioners lacked authority to dismiss or discipline Morin, and the sheriff had not punished or fired Morin after what appeared to be an extensive investigation.

“Why would I ever speak again?” said one current staff member, who knew the investigator interviewed at least 10 people who had reported that Morin targeted people because of their sex, race and sexual orientation. “The sheriff and the chief have never spoken of [the internal investigation].”

One person, former corrections officer Erica Tompkins, agreed to share her account. She described how Morin made her feel targeted because she’s a woman and how he questioned her sexual orientation. She resigned prior to the internal investigation and was not interviewed for it.

One of Tompkins’ first interactions with Morin was in 2016 when he came to greet future corrections officers doing their required hands-on training.

He pointed out she was the only female corrections officer in the class, saying, “Means you got all the men to yourself, which means you must like the attention,” she recalled.

Erica Tompkins is a former employee of the Kennebec County Corrections. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Dumbfounded, she told him she had a husband who gave her “plenty of attention,” she said.

“I bet your husband gives you attention with that physique,” she recalled Morin saying.

Quick to defend herself, she told him, “Nobody talks to me that way. If you say that or anything like that again, I’m going to drop your ass.”

Her reply did not win his favor, and they had several more confrontations during her one-year tenure. At one point Morin insinuated Tompkins had confiscated a female inmate’s red underwear because she was actually a lesbian, she said. Prisoners were only allowed to wear white or gray underwear, Tompkins said, and she had discovered the underwear as part of a broader shakedown of the block.

“Why was my sexuality being questioned and compared to my integrity? That’s just wrong,” she said. “The part you should be concerned about was how’d she get [the underwear] in here?”

In another instance, Tompkins spoke with Morin and Mason about the possibility of moving into a higher rank. She wanted to progress, she said, and decided to press Morin directly. She asked him if he had a problem with women in positions of power.

“Morin said, ‘Well, women just don’t do well in power,’” she said. She recalled the sheriff laughing.

Tompkins, who described herself as the son her father never had, has worked on the electrical design of ships at Bath Iron Works and managed a Family Dollar store. She spoke about sometimes holding two jobs at once, putting in more than 70 hours a week. She tied with another trainee for the second-highest final exam score at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.

Morin’s answer “just kind of blew me away,” she said. She resigned from the jail in 2017 for personal reasons, she said, after requiring surgery and experiencing a death in her family.

Tompkins told a coworker about Morin’s statements, and that person independently confirmed them to the BDN.

Tompkins was not surprised when the jail didn’t want to rehire her during the pandemic. She had maintained positive relationships with former colleagues, and the BDN confirmed she had never been disciplined, but her rejection letter in April 2020 stated that after “a thorough review” of her personnel file, past performance and “a consultation” with the sheriff, she was “not eligible” for reemployment.

Her supervisor, former Sgt. Andrew Darling, however, supported her rehire, he said. As a corrections officer, Tompkins had been fair, consistent and direct with inmates, Darling said.

“There are a lot of people who like to stir the pot. She was always able to take care of it and verbally de-escalate the situation,” he said. “She’d rather hurt someone’s feelings and tell them the way it is than give them a false story.”

Though she was disappointed about the rejection, Tompkins also recognized that perhaps she wouldn’t have thrived because she doesn’t let inappropriate comments slide and doesn’t think she should have to.

“I’m angry about it because I take pride in that kind of work, and I took pride in what I did and what I accomplished,” she said.

A Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office cruiser is pictured Jan. 22, 2021. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Two employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution cited what happened to former Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Chris Cowan as evidence that Morin or Mason would find a way to retaliate if they spoke out.

Cowan worked for the sheriff’s office for nearly 17 years. He supported Mason’s opponent in the November 2016 election, and, when Mason won, came to believe Morin and Mason set him up to eventually be fired as payback.

After changing Cowan’s schedule and job duties, and giving conflicting directions, the sheriff told him on Dec. 12, 2017, that Cowan was being placed on administrative leave until Jan. 2, at which time he would be demoted to deputy.

Cowan was shocked. “It was like being hit with a baseball bat. ‘For what?’” Cowan said.

The sheriff gave him a letter in which the only reason listed for the discipline was a joke Cowan had made the day before. He had opened a conversation with the sheriff by saying there had been a shooting. When the sheriff expressed concern, Cowan quickly told him no one had actually been shot, and the sheriff bantered back.

It was poorly timed humor, Cowan said, but he believed being demoted for it was ludicrous and an excuse to force him out the door. He fought the discipline, appealing to the county commissioners — who can overturn discipline but can’t force discipline when there has been none. In response the sheriff and Morin put together a list of 10 additional complaints about Cowan.

Cowan refuted each one with emails and testimony, according to a record of the appeal proceedings. The commissioners unanimously concluded that the sheriff and Morin had provided no evidence of Cowan’s alleged violations and that Cowan had done nothing to warrant discipline.

For instance, the sheriff told commissioners he had directed Cowan to improve the sheriff’s office’s working relationship with personnel at the communications center and jail, such as by directing law enforcement officers to spend more time in the facilities, but that Cowan had not done so.

On the contrary, Cowan had established a requirement for officers to visit the facilities several times per month and had enlisted the technology department to develop a system to track the visits. What’s more, conflictingly, Morin had previously emailed Cowan to tell him he had “jumped the gun” by initiating visits to the communications center.

“I couldn’t win,” Cowan said. “I knew the game. I knew what it was. It was nothing more than setting me up for failure so they could bring their own person in.”

Even though the commissioners reinstated him to his position as captain, Cowan no longer trusted the administration, he said, and resigned. He is now a patrol officer for the Oakland Police Department.

The irony of the sheriff not disciplining Morin, who had been investigated by an outside lawyer, versus the sheriff trying to discipline Cowan without an investigation and for ultimately illegitimate reasons, was not lost on Cowan.

The lack of consequences, Cowan said, sends a message that “the sheriff and the chief deputy are essentially untouchable.”

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Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on issues of sexual...