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Story Publication logo December 10, 2020

How We Investigated Wrongdoing at Sheriff’s Offices in Maine

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A Maine State Police cruiser is shown outside the Penobscot County Jail on May 12, 2020. Image by Natalie Williams/Bangor Daily News
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In 2017, the top elected officials in Maine's westernmost county took a rare vote to ask the...

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The pieces of the puzzle that made up the BDN's investigative series on Maine sheriffs. Illustration by Natalie Williams/BDN.
The pieces of the puzzle that made up the BDN's investigative series on Maine sheriffs. Illustration by Natalie Williams/BDN.

By 2020, the name "Wayne Gallant" was a familiar one to Maine people who followed news reports about the former Oxford County sheriff's downfall. In 2017, county officials discovered he had sexually harassed his employees and others by sending them explicit photos and messages, and Gallant subsequently resigned as sheriff.

But few statewide knew the name of Christina Sugars or her story. As one of the former deputies to report her boss' inappropriate advances, her account mostly existed in fragments amid a range of documents at the state and county levels, untold among the wider public.

Despite an internal and criminal investigation into Gallant, there had never been a full public reckoning of Gallant's misbehavior. Instead, several people who said they witnessed it firsthand, such as Sugars, bore their experiences privately. For Sugars, this was in part because she had been told the recourse she secured — a settlement agreement with the county — required her to stay silent.

Connecting with Sugars was largely an accident. After seeing Facebook pages, news reports and an online petition protesting Sugars' resignation — which no one yet knew was a condition of her settlement — Bangor Daily News investigations editor Erin Rhoda tried to reach her on Facebook.

"I haven't seen your side of the story anywhere. I don't know if it relates at all to Gallant, but I'd like to talk," Rhoda wrote to her Jan. 6. Sugars didn't reply. Having a cell phone number would have helped, but it's not easy to track down private numbers for police officers.

On a whim, Rhoda contacted a friend of Sugars, hoping the person could connect them. The friend didn't have to, but he did.

Sugars never sat down for a full interview about her experience, but, after several months, protected by the First Amendment right to free speech, she agreed to talk about broader themes related to police oversight. Combined with her complaint to the Maine Human Rights Commission, her settlement agreement with the county, and emails, it was enough to begin to piece together a deeper account of the financial and reputational damage Gallant had caused his community.

Unraveling the stories of other officers and community members in Oxford County was also important. But the BDN wanted to look beyond western Maine, too, to try to answer some of the questions Gallant's story raised about whether the state has effective oversight of county law enforcement. The resulting series, Lawmen Off Limits, which detailed specific ways county law enforcement officers escape accountability, was published between Nov. 30 and today. You can find it online.

Gallant's case wasn't the only sexual harassment scandal to roil a Maine sheriff's office. In late 2018, Rhoda and reporter Callie Ferguson reported that a guard at the Penobscot County Jail had sent unwanted explicit photos of himself to his colleagues, former inmates and a volunteer for years without being punished, until he resigned amid an internal investigation.

Later, in 2019, Rhoda and Ferguson obtained Penobscot County Jail discipline records through a public records request, which showed that other guards had sexually harassed their colleagues and kept their jobs.

If two Maine counties, Oxford and Penobscot, had issues with sexual harassment, it was likely other sheriff's offices had also documented misconduct that hadn't yet become public. Perhaps discipline records could provide a wider view of what was happening across Maine, where such records are public unlike in other states.

So, in early 2020, Rhoda began filing requests under the Maine Freedom of Access Act with all 16 Maine counties for five years of discipline and settlement agreements. In the end, it cost several thousand dollars to obtain nearly 700 unique records dating back to 2015. The BDN team later narrowed down the records to just law enforcement staff, reducing it to nearly 500 records.

We were able to pay for the records thanks to a grant from the nonprofit Pulitzer Center in Washington, D.C.

By our calculations, based on how much the counties charged per hour — though some agreed not to charge anything — county staff collectively spent more than 230 hours pulling all the documents from paper files to copy, redact and scan for the newspaper.

Rhoda submitted the requests in the days and weeks before the arrival of the coronavirus in Maine, meaning it would take the counties even longer than anticipated to provide the records, given that they had limited staff in their offices.

The team had plenty to write about in the meantime, as the pandemic upended life in Maine. Then protests that followed the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis amplified calls across the nation to find new ways to hold law enforcement accountable.

Franklin County provided records first, in February. Penobscot County sent them in August. Somerset County is the only one that still hasn't provided them.

When the nearly 1,300 pages of digital files came in, reporter Josh Keefe intended to look for trends or compare rates of discipline between sheriff's offices. But something eventually became clear: Sheriffs wrote up their punishments differently, and lawyers and sheriffs confirmed there are no standards for what type of information or level of detail should be included.

The records weren't necessarily a trove of scandals. Rather, seeing all the records together provided the story itself: Too many of the records couldn't be understood by a member of the public — especially in cases of more serious misconduct when the sheriff's office handed down harsher punishments.

As we plugged local discipline into a spreadsheet, another question remained: Could the state's police certification board have taken action against Gallant? The Maine Criminal Justice Academy's board of trustees stood out as the only independent state-level oversight for law enforcement officers. How does the academy work, and how well does it work?

In January, the academy's former longtime director, John Rogers, told Ferguson that sexual harassment didn't fall under its statutory authority. In other words, Gallant's behavior was alarming, but it didn't jeopardize his eligibility to be a law enforcement officer. With a few exceptions, the academy mostly punishes officers for criminal conduct, leaving Gallant out of its reach.

We decided to examine the academy's authority in two ways, starting with how it arrives at penalties when it does take action against the officers it certifies. Using a list of academy cases since 2008, Ferguson converted it by hand into a searchable format and broke it down by outcome.

When analyzing the list, Keefe discovered that nearly half of all Maine officers decertified between 2014 and 2018 were employed by counties. (County officers made up 28 percent of all certified officers in Maine in 2018.)

We also wanted to understand which cases fell outside the academy's purview. Examples of misconduct had begun to emerge from the county discipline records. After plugging them into an ever-growing Excel sheet, we could cross-reference local discipline with the list of academy cases to see if the academy had questioned the officers' certification.

One officer, named Scott Francis, caught Ferguson's attention. He twice evaded punishment from the academy despite being fired twice from local agencies for alleged violence. Based on her continued reporting, Ferguson learned two things.

First, it is impossible to understand the academy's decision-making when it dismisses a case. That's because it only makes its final decisions public and releases little about officers who avoid punishment to protect them from false accusations. Academy officials spent nearly 10 cumulative hours answering many questions and explained that they only drop a case when they don't have enough evidence to prove it.

Second, if Francis had worked in another state with broader decertification authority, it's possible he would have lost his license sooner.

We researched what other states have done to strengthen oversight and learned many had introduced laws to increase transparency and make it more difficult for problem officers to get future jobs in law enforcement.

Through the course of our investigations, we heard from Maine lawmakers who said they also want to ensure greater oversight, though how, specifically, remains to be seen. Accountability, ultimately, can foster more public trust in law enforcement, they said, and help respected police officers do their jobs — officers like Sugars who pay the cost when systems fail.

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