January 20, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Plunge bra fails to rise to jail fund standards

Say what you will about Sgt. Karina Richardson. At least she understands her place in Washington County history.

"My reputation has been ruined over a bra," Richardson lamented to the county commissioners Thursday evening as she tried -- and failed -- to hang on to her job as clerk of the Washington County Jail.

Presumably, Richardson was talking about the "Santa Baby novelty plunge bra," for which she paid, according to an outside investigator hired by the county, with funds from the jail's Inmate Benefit Account.

Or maybe she was referring to the "4 sateen push-up plunge bras" also purchased, according to the investigator, with money that was supposed to be spent on the jail inmates.

Either way, Richardson, 50, is a jail clerk no longer. And her defense -- she told the investigator that she has to "be dressed properly at work" and that her work "directly benefited the inmates" -- was, well, let's turn to county commission Chairman Chris Gardner for his take on that one.

"In rendering our decision (to fire Richardson), we heard her argument," Gardner said in a telephone interview Friday. "And we found it, unfortunately, less than convincing."

And in no way supported, as it were, by the evidence.

It all started late last year when Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith caught wind, apparently from another of his employees, that the Inmate Benefit Account was not always being used to make life a little more bearable for the folks behind bars.

The account, which, according to Gardner, normally carries a running balance of between $50,000 and $60,000, is funded primarily through profits from the jail commissary.

And exactly how are said profits supposed to be used?

Good question. While the jail has no policy of its own, the Maine Department of Corrections' standards state: "Use of funds in this account shall be approved by the jail administrator to directly benefit the inmate population. Inmate benefits shall not be used to expand, reduce or supplement a facility's operational budget."

(Not a word, let the record show, about push-up plunge bras.)

Enter Waterville lawyer Peter Marchesi, hired by Sheriff Smith in November to investigate whether the Washington County Jail's Inmate Benefit Account was on the up and up.

Marchesi's verdict, contained in a 28-page report presented to Smith on Dec. 14: "I conclude that there has been widespread non-conforming use of that fund."

He also found that two employees -- Richardson and the jail administrator, Capt. Robert Gross -- had improperly used the fund.

Both were subsequently suspended by Smith pending termination hearings before the three-member county commission.

Richardson's hearing, which lasted late into the night Thursday, focused on, among other things, a $400 annual clothing allowance she's received for several years -- although she is not a uniformed officer and is not entitled to such an allowance under the jail's union contract.

(Smith, who recently fired his chief deputy because the latter was suffering from "burnout," has insisted that Richardson's clothing allowance was news to him.)

According to investigator Marchesi, Richardson obtained reimbursement in January 2012 for receipts that included a "ruffled velour top, velour bustiere top, lace-cuff mesh top, lace sleeve blouse, bridesmaid dress, layered look dress, Santa Baby novelty plunge bra, 4 sateen push-up plunge bras, ruffle-trim motorcycle jacket, twill safari jacket, corduroy blazer, beaded necklace, rosette-trim halter dress and ankle-length strapless dress."

Marchesi reported that he confronted Richardson with the receipts and she "responded that the items of clothing listed are the type of clothes that she normally wears to work, and that the inmates benefit from having her at work."

(See: Paul Newman and his chain gang benefiting from watching Lucille, depicted by Joy Harmon, wash her car in the classic prison film "Cool Hand Luke.")

"Given the nature of the items of clothing purchased," Marchesi concluded, "I found (Richardson's) explanation to be unpersuasive."

So, unanimously, did the county commissioners.

There is, to be sure, more to this than Richardson's eye-catching list of unmentionables.

Marchesi's report cites a long list of other "improper" expenditures, ranging from smartphones for Richardson and Gross to books and DVDs that Richardson returned to the jail in a large box and a shopping bag within hours of her interview with Marchesi. (It was all caught on tape by the jail's video surveillance cameras.)

What's more, this thing is far from over.

Gross, deemed by Marchesi to have improperly used the fund, but (unlike Richardson) not for significant "personal gain for him," gets his termination hearing Thursday.

And after that, the county commissioners will invite in the Maine Attorney General's Office to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the entire mess and determine whether anything criminal took place.

Then there's the back story: Richardson's attorney, Jeffrey Davidson of Machias, got into hot water himself with the sheriff's office in 2011 after he asked a female officer, just before he was to question her in a criminal case, "Have you ever been raped?"

When the officer responded that it was a personal question, Davidson replied, "Well, get ready because today will be your first time."

Davidson, who did not respond to repeated requests for an interview Friday, got a reprimand from the Maine Board of Overseers for that one.

"He and the sheriff are not buds," observed Jeffrey Toothaker, Gross's attorney, in an interview Friday.

Toothaker's other noteworthy comment on the matter at hand: "If the bra fits, you must acquit!"

Which brings us back to Richardson, who told the assembled media after Thursday's marathon hearing that she wasn't surprised she lost her job, has no plans to appeal and is less than optimistic about her future as she tries to pick up the pieces in her small town of East Machias.

"I live in a small community," Richardson noted. "And I think I will have a hard time getting a fair shake."

Maybe she should try on a new metaphor.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@mainetoday.com

 

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