July 13, 2020

Ethics issue arises in sheriff’s race

PERRY – Washington County commissioners have sent a letter to the county’s district attorney, asking him to investigate allegations that Sgt. Donnie Smith of the sheriff’s department may have violated state laws by appearing in campaign ads while in uniform.

Chairman Kevin Shorey released a copy of the letter Wednesday. He said that for Smith to wear a uniform in his ads provided an unfair advantage over the other candidates.

Smith, a Lubec resident who is running as an independent, is in a three-way race for the county’s top law enforcement job. Sheriff Joseph Tibbetts did not seek re-election.

The other candidates in the race are former deputy George Bunker, D-Kossuth, and sheriff’s Cpl. Rodney Merritt, R-East Machias.

“Brought into question was the practice of Mr. Smith being in uniform in his political ads,” the letter to Povich said. “As a result of that inquiry. the Ethics Commission formed the opinion that Mr. Smith was in fact in violation of [state law] if he was in fact utilizing his uniform in the course of his political advertising.”

The Ethics Commission, Shorey said, referred the matter to the commissioners since they had no “enforcement powers” in this area.

“As a result, the county commissioners are requesting that your office investigate this matter to see if in fact there is a violation of such by any candidate in this race and if so take the appropriate action necessary to ensure that those in the sheriff’s race follow the law in the matter,” the letter to Povich went on to say.

Povich said he received the letter on Wednesday. “They asked me to look into it as the attorney for the county, and I will do that. I will look at the statute and contact the Ethics Commission to get the scope of the issue.”

At the press conference Wednesday, Shorey said although he was a Republican, he had not endorsed any candidate in the sheriff’s race.

“This sheriff’s race has been particularly contentious dealing with all the candidates, regardless if they are Republican, Democrat or independent,” Shorey said.

During the campaign, Shorey said, the commissioners received complaints on both Smith and Merritt. A complaint concerning time cards and Merritt was referred to the Attorney General’s Office.

“The Attorney General’s Office found there was no violations,” Shorey said. “During that period of time we asked the sheriff to talk to or send a note or memo to each of the candidates instructing them they were not to appear in uniform, they were not to use county property, they were not to use county time to campaign.”

The chairman, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1998 and to the Senate in 2000, said he was personally upset by Smith’s breach of ethics.

“Ethics are very, very important,” he said. He said the commission went public with the letter, because they’ve asked the deputies through the sheriff to not campaign in uniform. “As far as I’m concerned this flies in the face of our direction,” Shorey said.

Contacted Wednesday, a spokeswoman at the Ethics Commission said Smith told her he was unaware of the requirements of state law and had removed a photo of himself in uniform from his Web site.

But on Wednesday, Smith’s Web site, under the title “Donnie Smith for Sheriff,” featured a picture of him in his brown Washington County sheriff’s uniform with his dog, who is wearing a police badge.

Smith said Wednesday he believed that the issue was politically motivated. He said that he received an e-mail from the Attorney General’s Office in February that said he could wear his uniform.

“We concur that you would be in compliance with Section 353 of Title 30-A if you either changed the picture to one out of uniform or remove any indicia of a solicitation for campaign contributions. One or the other would work,” Brian MacMaster’s of the Attorney General’s Office wrote.

Smith said he removed the solicitation part on his Web site.

But in June, Smith’s attorney, Donald Brown of Brewer, sent a letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Bangor Daily News, to the sheriff that complained about the uniform issue, only this time involving Smith’s opponent Rodney Merritt.

“This is the second time in approximately one week that Cpl. Merritt has addressed campaign issues while in uniform, being paid by the citizens of Washington County, and supposedly on duty as a sheriff’s department officer,” Brown wrote. “Cpl. Merritt’s actions violate Maine Revised Statute Annotated Title 30, and is probably also a violation of departmental policy.”

Brown called for an investigation and appropriate disciplinary action be taken against Merritt.

Smith said there apparently is county policy about wearing uniforms during a campaign, but the sheriff told him he did not plan to follow it.

Tibbetts said Wednesday that Smith was right. He said the policy said that a deputy could not run for sheriff, so if he enforced one provision he would have to enforce both.

However, he said, the issue was not about the county’s personnel policy but about state law. He said state law prohibits a candidate from appearing in uniform. The sheriff said he spoke with each of the candidates about the state statute.

Smith said he’s never spoken with the sheriff about that issue.

“I just wish they could play in the same sandbox and go on their own merits,” Tibbetts said about the issue.

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