MACHIAS, Maine — Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith on Friday appealed unemployment benefits awarded to two former jail employees who were subject to an investigation about the misappropriation of jail funds earlier this year.
But there are questions about whether Smith, acting on behalf of the county, has standing to file the appeals. Smith and his attorney, Don Brown, say that the authority to act on the county’s behalf was delegated to the sheriff when the unemployment proceedings began.
However, Chris Gardner, chairman of the Washington County commissioners, said he’s unaware of that delegation of power taking place and said the county commissioners have opted not to appeal the Department of Labor’s decision to award unemployment to the former employees.
Karina Richardson, the former jail clerk, was fired by commissioners after an investigation into alleged misappropriation of an inmate benefits account. The commissioners said Richardson had misused the funds for personal gain. Robert Gross, the former jail administrator, who Smith also said misused funds, resigned before the commissioners could decide whether to fire him.
Both, however, were awarded unemployment benefits after initial hearings in May. The county will be on the hook for a portion of the benefits. Richardson also is appealing her firing. An attorney general’s investigation into the use of the inmate benefits account is ongoing.
“We have chosen not to file an appeal [on the unemployment rulings] — not because we were happy with the decisions, but because we have to make our decisions based on what is probable, and trying not to continuously invest the taxpayers’ money in what could be a fruitless pursuit,” Gardner said Friday.
According to a Department of Labor official, the only people who can file an appeal of an unemployment decision are the parties named in each case. In this case, that’s Richardson, Gross and their former employer, the County of Washington.
Smith said Friday that the unemployment appeal process was handed to him from the very beginning, giving him the authority to represent the county.
Gardner said that Smith had been a representative in the initial phone calls with a Department of Labor official — at which time Richardson was awarded benefits and Gross was not.
“He certainly was a representative at the hearings, as the first-line supervisor of the people involved,” Gardner said. “But at the end of the day, it’s the commissioners who have standing in this matter.”
Gross appealed the initial decision to not give him unemployment benefits. The county appealed the decision in Richardson’s case.
“I handled the initial conversation on the phone,” Smith said. “The commissioners handed that to me, so I assumed they had turned this all over to me. I mean, wouldn’t you? So until someone tells me otherwise, I’m handling it.”
Brown, the attorney who filed the appeals for Smith, backed up that assertion.
“Many organizations have different departments [and] many times department heads represent the interest of their employers, and I think that’s what happened in this case,” he said Friday.
Brown also said he’s unsure why the commissioners would have allowed Smith to speak on behalf of the county originally if they never intended to delegate him final authority.
“It’s like letting someone climb out onto a tree, then sawing off the branch,” he said.
Also in question is the role played by Betsy Fitzgerald, the county manager.
Gardner said that while the commissioners are the final authority in the county, the appeals process is an administrative function, which falls under Fitzgerald, their employee. He said he doesn’t know whether Fitzgerald instructed the sheriff to take the reins, which may have led to the confusion.
“If that’s how the county manager chose to handle the matter, it would be within her purview to delegate. I’d defer to her,” he said.
Efforts to contact Fitzgerald on Friday were unsuccessful, as were efforts to contact the county’s lawyer, Timothy Pease.
Ultimately, the Labor Department’s Division of Administrative Hearings will have to decide whether the appeals are valid. Gardner said he will look into the issue personally.
“I appreciate that the sheriff is not pleased with the decisions, but I have to make sure the way we proceed is the appropriate one,” Gardner said.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.