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The Rural Maine Reporting Project is made possible through the generous support of the Betterment Fund.

Investigative Reporting Shows Weak System Of Accountability For Maine Sheriffs

Susan Sharon
/
Maine Public file
Former Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant at a press conference in May 2017.

In Dec. 2017, Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant resigned after several well-documented allegations of sexual harassment against members of his staff and others — at least five people in total.

Although several bodies including the FBI investigated the case, Gallant never faced disciplinary measures and ultimately even maintained pension eligibility. Meanwhile, the county paid costs and fees of more than $170,000.

Gallant’s story is the starting point for a series of stories reported by the Maine Focus investigative team at the Bangor Daily News on accountability and county law enforcement in the state. Maine Focus editor Erin Rhoda reported the story, and she spoke with All Things Considered Host Nora Flaherty about what happened when evidence of Gallant’s actions came to light.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Rhoda: So it started when a TV station published an explicit photo of Gallant in his office that he had sent to an unnamed woman. No one knew that the Oxford County commissioners were investigating Gallant for sexual harassment. And no one also knew that the FBI was investigating him for potential criminal matters. But a few weeks later, the commissioners took the move of petitioning the governor to remove Gallant from office based on the results of their internal investigation, which found he had sexually harassed multiple people, including at least two of his employees. But Gallant resigned on Dec. 6, 2017, before then-Gov. Paul LePage could announce what he would have done.

Flaherty: Your article shows some fairly irrefutable evidence that he had sexually harassed members of his staff. But you quote one female officer who says, ‘He’s untouchable, what’s the point of reporting it?’ And because of the way Maine’s system is set up, you say that is basically true. How is that?

So unlike police chiefs who are hired by their municipalities, sheriffs are elected by voters, and through the Maine Constitution, only a governor can remove them. That is a pretty high bar. So the last time a Main governor removed a sheriff was in 1926. That means while county commissioners are technically in charge of the finances and operations of a county, they cannot remove or discipline a sheriff, or even place a sheriff on administrative leave while that sheriff is being investigated for infractions or even potential crimes. And so then there’s the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, which certifies officers and can take their certifications away for misconduct, but it does not review, let alone decertify officers for sexual harassment.

Is that an unusual system? Do other states have more comprehensive oversight systems for county law enforcement?

Yes. As part of my reporting, I learned about Idaho, where officers can be decertified for inappropriate sexual conduct while on duty, and also for having inappropriate relationships with people who are involved in criminal investigations, such as witnesses or victims. Utah can decertify officers who engage in sexual conduct while on duty. Florida, the oversight body there can punish officers for sexual harassment. So there are other places that do this differently. It’s also important to note that other professions handle this differently in Maine too. So you would probably see a sexual harassment case brought before the regulatory board that oversees doctors, and probably the one that oversees attorneys as well.

Nora is originally from the Boston area but has lived in Chicago, Michigan, New York City and at the northern tip of New York state. Nora began working in public radio at Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor and has been an on-air host, a reporter, a digital editor, a producer, and, when they let her, played records.