SKOWHEGAN — The firing of a Somerset County Jail guard Friday has led to the discovery that five of 16 individuals hired by Sheriff Barry DeLong have criminal records. The five individuals were hired for positions as jail guards and jail cook.
Law enforcement officials confirmed that the fired jail guard, Merle Pierce Jr. of Bingham, is the subject of a criminal investigation. Pierce, 26, has 12 convictions in his past, for offenses including assault.
The number of employees with criminal records has caused commissioners, police chiefs and town administrators in Somerset County to question the county sheriff’s hiring practices.
One local police chief likened DeLong’s hiring skills to “allowing the wolves to watch the sheep.”
Of the 16 people hired full time by DeLong since he took office in January 1995, five were convicted of crimes in Skowhegan District Court. As of Friday morning, four were still employed. Three were guards in the jail where they once served time.
DeLong defended the hirings Friday, saying he never sat in on the hiring boards that reviewed the applications of these men and that each individually had their records waived at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Waterville before taking the state corrections officers course. Applicants to the justice academy can request that their criminal records be forgiven for the purpose of employment.
“How long do you pay for mistakes?” asked DeLong. “Shouldn’t you be allowed to go back into society after a while? Many young people make bad choices and stupid mistakes. Where do you draw the line?”
What DeLong did not say Friday morning, however, was that Chief Deputy Paul Davis, at the same time DeLong was being interviewed, was upstairs in the county courthouse, firing Pierce for what he called “his involvement in very serious crimes.”
Davis would not reveal what the crimes were, but said Pierce was expected to be charged and would likely face a Somerset County grand jury next month.
Pierce, hired full time by DeLong in February 1996, had a variety of convictions in Skowhegan District Court from 1988 to 1993. They include illegal transportation of liquor, assault, failure to stop for a police officer, and the ultimate revocation of his probation on the assault conviction. Twice he served time in Somerset County Jail, where he worked as a guard until he was suspended two weeks ago while the criminal investigation into the pending charges was under way.
Even with a waiver, the records of some of the guards in Somerset County Jail hired by the sheriff are inappropriate, officials are saying. Fairfield Police Chief John Pouliot, Pittsfield Police Chief Steve Emery and Skowhegan Police Chief Butch Asselin — when read the record of Pierce — all said they would not consider his application for employment.
When he reveiwed the conviction list, Pittsfield Town Manager D. Dwight Dogherty, a member of the Somerset County Budget Committee, said several convictions gave him grave concern and would have affected hiring decisions if he had sat on the board.
Asselin said it is important to hold all state, county and local employees to some standards. The Skowhegan chief said, “Even our dispatchers are held to a high standard. We’ve turned people away before for speeding convictions.”
Asselin was also critical of DeLong.
“I think this says a lot about Barry, if he is willing to hire guys like that. I’m afraid this might just be the tip of the iceberg. I’ve been hearing rumors for months,” said Asselin. “For all we know, some of these guys could be guarding their very own drinking buddies.”
The employees and former employees besides Pierce hired by DeLong with convictions in Skowhegan District Court are:
Robert Beane, 49, of Bingham, a cook in the jail: five convictions since 1990, including drunken driving, leaving the scene of an accident, drinking in public and criminal trespass.
Allen Roderick, 45, of Bingham, jail guard: two convictions including one for drunken driving in 1992.
Terry Hilton, 33, of Bingham, jail guard: four convictions including two for drunken driving, one in 1990 and one in 1992.
A fifth man, Chad Curtis, 26, of Madison, was also hired by DeLong as a jail guard, despite seven convictions including theft by deception and operating after suspension. DeLong said Curtis worked only a few shifts in 1997 before he was fired when his background information was revealed.
Of the five men, Curtis, Hilton, Roderick, Pierce and Beane all have been incarcerated at Somerset County Jail.
DeLong said it was a coincidence that four of the men come from his hometown of Bingham.
DeLong maintained Friday that “everybody should be given a chance to get on with their lives. If a lawyer gets picked up for drunk driving, should he be barred from practicing law? A lot of these convictions stem from stupid mistakes made when these guys were young and foolish.”
DeLong said the men in question who now work for him “have paid their debt, what society determined they owed, and are now working and doing their jobs well. That is all I’m concerned with — if they were academy-acceptable and they are doing their job well.”
According to Steven Giorgetti, director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Waterville, anyone wanting to work in law enforcment or corrections with a conviction may petition the academy board of directors to have those convictions set aside for purposes of employment.
“They appear before the board and essentially plead their case,” said Giorgetti. He said fewer than 10 petitions are heard a year. “In most cases, as a general guideline, the last conviction should be at least 3 years old,” he said. If denied, an applicant can petition the board three years later.
In the case of Somerset’s jail employees, two of them — Pierce and Beane — have convictions less than 3 years old.
County Commissioner Zane Libby said that when he sat in on the interview panels for hiring corrections’ officers, DeLong would provide the panel with a packet of information about the interviewee. “This included prior job experience,” said Libby, “but never included criminal background information.”
Libby said the list of convictions for current jail guards “surprised the devil out of me. I had assumed that the sheriff had checked their criminal background. Maybe I assumed too much.”
Libby said that in the future, commissioners will be requesting criminal checks for Sheriff’s Department hiring, just as they already do for other county departments. “If someone has a criminal record, we shouldn’t be hiring them,” said Libby.