Sergeant Karina Richardson was fired from her position that she had held for over nine years as Washington County jail clerk for alleged misuse of the county jail inmate benefit account after a public hearing was held by the county commissioners at the county courthouse. The 10‑hour public hearing on January 17 lasted until 11 p.m. and was held in open session at the request of both Richardson and long‑time jail Administrator Captain Robert Gross. Both were under investigation for alleged misappropriation of funds from the jail's inmate benefit account. Gross tendered his resignation by letter the following day. According to County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald he gave no reason.
At the hearing the county commissioners voted to uphold Sheriff Donnie Smith's recommendation for termination of employment of Richardson. Because of the late hour the commissioners delayed their decision on the employment status of Gross. The commissioners had intended to hold a special meeting on January 24 to vote on Gross' status but canceled the meeting when they heard of his resignation. Both employees were on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation and the commissioners' decisions.
The county inmate profit or benefit account is meant specifically to benefit the jail inmates and not meant for the support of items that would be used for jail operations. Unlike an inmate account, which is for an individual inmate and generally has deposits in it made by family members, the inmate benefit account receives deposits from "any profits garnered by services used by the inmates," explains county commission Chair Chris Gardner. Profits are from the sales of items in vending machines used by jail visitors, commissary sales, inmate use of the phones and more. Maine Department of Corrections standards state that "use of funds in this account shall be approved by the jail administrator to directly benefit the inmate population. Inmate benefit funds shall not be used to expand, reduce or supplement a facility's operational budget."
Gardner notes that because of the investigation, "Policy changes are in place." He adds, "The treasurer's office has been directed to diligently work on policy reviews and accountability." Short‑term changes included the removal of the jail checkbooks to the treasurer's office. "We're not impressed with what we've seen," he adds of the investigation into the two staff members' use of the inmate benefit fund.
The Marchesi report
During the public hearing Sheriff Smith explained that in the fall of 2012 he was made aware of a potential problem with how inmate benefit account funds were being used. He reviewed the checkbook for the account and receipts on file. The county hired an independent lawyer, attorney Peter Marchesi of Wheeler & Arey, P.A., of Waterville, to investigate. Marchesi reviewed expenditure documents from about 2004 to 2012. Based on those documents and conversations with Smith, Marchesi conducted interviews with certain members of the sheriff department's staff, focusing most of his inquiry on 2012 expenditures, with some from 2011.
In his report to Smith, Marchesi wrote, "There is extensive and incontrovertible documentation of widespread use of funds that did not conform.... I believe that it is most likely that similar nonconforming uses of funds from the inmate [benefit] account have taken place over the course of many years." Staff interviews were conducted with the use of Garrity warnings, which enable management to question an employee and require that they respond, while protecting the employee's constitutional rights.
Marchesi's list of nonconforming expenditures under the 2011 and 2012 review totaled $7,271. During the hearing, references were made to a $400 cell phone, reimbursement for cell phone bills ranging from $35 to over $200, laptops and an iPad, booster equipment for Internet access, books, DVDs, clothing, reimbursement for meals and more. In question was whether or not these items directly benefited the inmates, should have been paid for through the jail operating budget, such as the computer, phone and booster purchased by Gross, or had no place on any county budget, such as Richardson's information technology (IT) equipment and her purchases of clothing.
Gross was asked if he had attempted to pay for any of his IT needs through his jail budget. He responded that he had used the inmate benefit account because he couldn't find any money to use in the jail budget. He also said, "The inmate fund was there when I took on the position. Anything you could attach an inmate to -- you could use the fund as long as it was a benefit to the inmate." However, Sheriff Smith's attorney, Don Brown, noted later that Gross had not asked to include items that would usually be considered part of operations, such as IT items and bags used for inmate commissary purchases, in the jail's annual operating budget.
Lingerie, ruffles and velour
Much to the delight of the attorney representing Gross, Jeffrey Toothaker, lingerie, ruffles and velour purchased by Richardson was a lingerie item with the festive title of "Santa Baby Push‑up Bra." While interviewing his client on the stand, Toothaker stated that much had been made of the item during the hearing, yet he was the one who appeared to revel in the description, using it repeatedly. However, it was Brown who noted that during Richardson's interview with Marchesi she included the statement, "I don't go to work naked," and when questioned about the lingerie said, "It's clothing," and when asked if such an item directly benefited the inmates, responded with "yes."
Richardson also purchased a strapless gown, a ruffle‑trim leather jacket, a velour bustier, a rosette‑trim halter dress, lace embellished tops and more. When asked by Toothaker if she wore the items to work, Richardson replied that she did, using a cardigan or jacket to complete the outfit.
At the hearing Richardson explained that she was not reimbursed for the lingerie, but rather that she submitted receipts that when combined were over the $400 reimbursement amount. However, the legitimacy of the clothing allowance was questioned by Brown, who asked Gross, "Do you believe you had the authority to give Karina a $400 clothing allowance?" To which Gross replied that he had spoken to the sheriff and felt that he did have that authority. Brown noted that the transcripts recorded during Marchesi's interviews "suggest otherwise."
Some union members of the sheriff's department receive an annual clothing allowance of $400 and are required to wear uniforms. Richardson did not wear a uniform and was not identified in the union contract as an employee entitled to an allowance. Marchesi notes, "For those employees who are entitled to clothing, the clothing is limited to 'uniforms and other equipment which [the county] deems necessary for the regular performance of the employee's duties.'"
The Attorney General's Office has been asked to fully investigate the fund, Gardner says. "We're asking them to go wherever it leads them. It needs to be thorough and transparent." He adds, "Things like this certainly play to the fears of the public about tax misuse. We have a full commitment -- everyone in these walls will be scrutinized."
County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald explains that the inmate benefit fund was a holdover from 25 years ago and has since been put into the treasurer's office so that "the process is transparent and can stand up to any scrutiny."
The two positions at the county jail are first being advertised internally before being advertised more widely.