Oxford County Sheriff Christopher Wainwright came under fire after leaked audio showed him directing one of his deputies to go easy on a woman he’d cited for a traffic violation.
Oxford County Sheriff Christopher Wainwright. Credit: Courtesy of Christopher Wainwright

The Oxford County commissioners declined to recommend to the governor on Thursday that the sheriff be removed from office. 

The three commissioners spent two-and-a-half hours behind closed doors in executive session with Sheriff Christopher Wainwright after an investigation was conducted into his handling of a traffic violation that had made at least two of his deputies uneasy. 

The commissioners took no vote when they left their executive session. But Commissioner David Duguay said he would have preferred to recommend the sheriff’s removal. The other two commissioners, Timothy Turner and Steven Merrill, opted instead to release a public statement, and Duguay said he would support that decision.

“The statement would have been my second option. I would have preferred the letter to the governor,” Duguay said. “I just feel an obligation, that is all. I really deliberated back and forth. It’s really been a tough deliberation, being my own devil’s advocate. It was close, very close.”

Oxford County commissioners declined Thursday to recommend Sheriff Christopher Wainwright be removed from office.
Oxford County commissioners decided Thursday not to recommend that Sheriff Christopher Wainwright be removed from office. From left are Timothy Turner, Steven Merrill and David Duguay. Credit: Erin Rhoda / BDN

In their statement, commissioners said Wainwright’s actions were a “textbook example” of how not to behave as a supervisor and that, if Wainwright had been a department head working directly for the commissioners, he would have been suspended, investigated and possibly fired. But a sheriff is elected and cannot be suspended or disciplined by commissioners. Under Maine law, sheriffs can only be removed by the governor.

The commissioners were uncertain whether Wainwright’s actions were severe enough to warrant a decision by the governor to remove him. 

“In the absence of criminal activity, will unethical conduct and improper treatment of subordinate employees rise to the level of removing a sheriff in Maine? In our estimation it is a close call,” the commissioners said.

Wainwright did not attend the public portion of the meeting.

The investigation centered on how Wainwright directed one of his deputies to go easy on an acquaintance the deputy had cited for a traffic violation in August. He then got angry when that deputy and a second deputy reported the sheriff’s request up the chain of command.

Someone recorded the sheriff when he called Deputy Tyler Fournier and yelled at the deputy for telling others about his request for leniency and questioning the sheriff’s authority. The recording was then shared with the Bangor Daily News. 

“I can shred any frickin’ traffic ticket I want. You guys work at my discretion,” Wainwright told the deputy in the recorded phone call. “So there’s no fixing tickets. There’s nothing illegal. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“I don’t work for the county commissioners, and I don’t work for the chief deputy. You all work for me. And if I tell you not to write any fucking tickets ever again, you won’t write any tickets ever again. You know what I’m saying? That’s the sheriff. It’s a constitutional office,” he continued.

After the BDN told the sheriff it had the recording, he released a written apology to the two deputies, sheriff’s office and the public, saying he had been unprofessional in the way he spoke to Fournier in his call on Nov. 7. He had also called another deputy, Gerald “Jerry” Maccione, who later left and is now an officer with Wilton Police Department.

“I raised my voice to both of them, and I overstated my authority as Sheriff, using inappropriate language and speaking in a tone unbefitting of the leader of a law enforcement agency,” Wainwright said in the statement. While he did not commit a crime, he said, he had violated Maine’s law enforcement code of ethics by asking his deputy to show favor toward someone.

On Thursday, Oxford County deputies and detectives disagreed with the assertion that Wainwright didn’t commit a crime. They asked the commissioners to request that Gov. Janet Mills remove Wainwright from office, saying “there are simply no excuses” for his “unprofessional and unethical” behavior in one of the highest law enforcement positions in the state.

“Oxford County has suffered another black eye and our reputation has taken a major blow. People have lost any faith they had in the Sheriff,” read a letter from Traci St. Clair given to the commissioners on Thursday on behalf of a majority of the unionized sheriff’s office employees. St. Clair is a business agent with the Teamsters Local Union No. 340.

“Not only was he unprofessional and unethical, but he also committed numerous crimes,” the letter stated, including official oppression, illegal disposition of a summons, improper influence and obstructing government administration.

“Since the date of the Fournier/Maccione incident, he has continued to treat employees this same way, demonstrating he hasn’t learned from his mistake. He only ‘learned’ when he was caught,” the union letter continued. 

While it is unethical under Maine’s law enforcement code of ethics for a sheriff to ask his deputy to show leniency for an acquaintance, the county’s investigation found no evidence that Wainwright received or was promised any financial or other benefit for making the request, the commissioners said in their statement. The Maine attorney general’s office does not prosecute police for making requests for leniency without some type of reciprocal gain.

“The investigation strongly suggests that the Sheriff’s request for leniency was grounded in his benevolent concern for the sister of the woman who was ticketed, as she was suffering with advanced cancer,” according to the commissioners’ statement. “There is no evidence of any special relationship between the Sheriff and either of the two women.”

The commissioners said they struggled “intensely” with the recorded Nov. 7 phone calls between Wainwright and his two deputies, especially because the sheriff overstated his authority. For instance, the sheriff alone cannot fire an employee; doing so requires approval from the commissioners. 

“His tone and unprofessionalism demonstrated in those calls reveal his extremely poor judgment,” the commissioners said. 

They also acknowledged that Wainwright cooperated with the investigation, and has apologized and taken responsibility. They said they found his regret “to be genuine and sincere.” 

Wainwright has promised to treat all employees with dignity and respect; to take leadership, ethics and management training; and to work closely with Oxford County Administrator Donald Durrah on all future personnel matters, they said.

“The Sheriff’s actions have left the County Commissioners with no good choices in this situation. In considering whether to send a complaint to the Governor, the County Commissioners have concluded that, at this time, it is better to give the Sheriff an opportunity to follow through on his commitments for self-improvement and to demonstrate that he can conduct himself in a manner befitting his Office,” they said.

This is the second time in recent years that Oxford County has investigated its sheriff. In 2017, the commissioners asked then-Gov. Paul LePage to remove former Sheriff Wayne Gallant from office, but Gallant resigned before LePage made a decision. Evidence revealed Gallant had sent nude and graphic pictures of himself to members of the community and his staff.

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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 domestic and...