Oxford County Sheriff Wainwright denies his conduct merits removal

PARIS — On Wednesday, hours before the Oxford County Commission was scheduled to meet to finalize wording on a complaint they intended to send to Gov. Janet Mills requesting his removal, Sheriff Christopher Wainwright issued a statement welcoming the scrutiny.

In that statement, Wainwright said, “As a matter of public record, I have acknowledged the mistakes that I have made while in office and apologized for same as appropriate. But let me be clear, there is nothing about my conduct in office, personally or professionally, that merits my removal. I remain eager to engage the process of review with a neutral arbitrator of fact and law — the governor.”

The commission meeting started at 9 a.m., and after conferring with attorney Amy Dieterich in executive session, commissioners reconvened a public meeting and voted to send the complaint to the governor’s office today.

The complaint contains a short summary of the commission’s decision, that “it is the belief of the Board that Sheriff Wainwright has proven himself unworthy of the Office of Sheriff. Whatever his intentions, there can be no excuse for his repeated lack of diligence and judgment, and violations of law and County practices.”

Request to remove Oxford County Sheriff Christopher Wainwright (Feb. 7, 2024) by Maine Trust For Local News on Scribd

Commissioners said “There is no room in the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office for a sheriff who places himself above the policies that he is charged with administering, above the ethical responsibilities that he swore an oath to uphold, and the laws that he is charged with enforcing. No one is unaccountable.”

The summary continues on, saying “While the people may have elected the Sheriff before the facts giving rise to this Complaint were publicly revealed, the actions of the Sheriff have proven that he is incapable of faithfully or efficiently performing the functions of the Office. The Board believes that Oxford County deserves a Sheriff that embodies the virtues and values of the Maine Law Enforcement Code of Ethics, particularly the following requirement: ‘Honest in thought and deed in both my personal and official life, I will be exemplary in obeying the laws of the land and the regulations of my department.’”

For these reasons, the commission is asking the governor that she exercise her “Constitutional and statutory authority to have the Sheriff removed and to replace him with an individual who is capable and worthy of the job.”

In his early morning statement, Wainwright noted he was aware commissioners intended to “publish their complaint against me today, together with the reports they purport to rely on. At each turn, I and others have requested to see this information, but the board has secreted the information from disclosure or scrutiny.”

On Jan. 16, the three-man commission voted unanimously to send a complaint to the governor detailing specific examples of Wainwright’s past actions, including disposal of dozens of firearms from the department’s evidence room without the knowledge of county officials and outside the financial scrutiny of those officials, and to request that Mills remove him from office.

Oxford County Sheriff Christopher Wainwright speaks at Bethel’s annual town meeting June 15, 2023. Rose Lincoln/The Bethel Citizen file

In addition to the firearms sales, commissioners are basing their request on Wainwright’s decision to allow two school resource officers to carry guns in schools last year even though their certification as law enforcement officers had expired.

The third situation noted in the commissioners’ decision to seek Wainwright’s removal is tied to commissioners’ investigation in November that Wainwright asked one of his deputies to go easy on a woman who had received a traffic citation.

Commissioners base their decision to ask for Wainwright’s removal on the belief that, according to the motion made requesting his removal, he “failed to faithfully and efficiently perform the duties of his office and improperly exercised and acted outside of his legal authority.”

When they met last week and revealed they planned to seek the sheriff’s removal, commissioners noted that investigations into Wainwright’s actions have been disruptive to the sheriff’s office, have impacted morale, resulted in staff turnover and cost Oxford County taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars that could have been used for projects important to residents.

The commission has no authority to suspend or fire Wainwright, who has been with the Oxford County department for more than 30 years and was first elected sheriff in 2018. Maine statute dictates that only the governor has that power.

If a sheriff is removed, the governor appoints an interim one to serve until the next scheduled election.

In his morning statement, Wainwright said that, “perhaps in time, my personal reputation will recover from the commissioners’ reliance on rumor and innuendo; however, as an elected public figure, with nothing to hide, that my personal reputation remains secondary to my professional commitment to the integrity of the office of sheriff and preservation of the dignity of that office, in Oxford County, and beyond.”

He pledged to continue to carry out his duties and obligations of the office, to employees of the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office, “the electorate, and others in a dignified and professional manner, by not publicly commenting on shameful mischaracterizations of my time in office outside the process to be determined by the governor.”

Last year, the police union had urged commissioners to begin the process to remove the sheriff, saying the department has been in turmoil for five years due to “poor management and the lack of leadership.”

Last week, a small group of patrol deputies issued a statement in support of Wainwright, saying they did not support the union’s position and stand behind the sheriff as their elected leader.

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