If Vermont’s county sheriffs are accountable to their voters, but most of their voters don’t pay much attention to them, what happens when they do something wrong?
That’s what Patrick Warn, of Georgia, Vermont, was wondering when he shared his curiosity with Brave Little State, VPR’s people-powered journalism podcast.
“I would be willing to bet that [for] most [voters], sheriff is just one of those names on the bottom of their ballot,” Patrick says. “Well as long as there's at least one name there, they'll check it off, and they don't really know much about what's going on with ... their sheriff.”
Perhaps you can relate to this; county sheriff is an elected position that doesn’t get too much attention. But sheriffs have a four-year term and jurisdiction across the entire state. So what Patrick wanted to know is: who exactly is keeping an eye on them?
What you should know about Patrick is that he's basically the Platonic ideal of a question-asker. He signs all his emails, “Wondering what it all means, Patrick.” And he takes civics and civic duty seriously. In his free time, he volunteers as a guardian ad litem — this means he advocates for children who get taken into state custody.
“I'm there to speak for the kids and their best interests,” he says. “So I spend a lot of time down at the courthouse.”
This is the district court in St. Albans. Patrick often interacts with a sheriff’s deputy, which he says is always pleasant.
“Um, he searches me when I go in, and we talk about what's going on in the world. And he usually gives me a lollipop or a Lifesaver,” Patrick says, laughing. “I don't really have any axe to grind about any particular sheriff in general — just sort of, like, the concept. I'm curious about how is it that we're keeping the sheriffs responsible."
Patrick’s question is totally theoretical. So, in order to answer it, we’re not going to assess how good or bad Vermont's current sheriffs actually are. Rather, we’re going to try to understand how the system of oversight works.
Roger Marcoux has been the Lamoille County sheriff for 17 years. Even he admits, “I don't think there's a lot of legislators that completely understand how we work.”
If you’re not sure what Vermont’s county sheriffs do, here’s a quick overview.
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Essentially, sheriffs are county law enforcement officers. While the state has state troopers and some towns and cities have municipal police departments, every county in Vermont has a sheriff's department. These sheriffs get funding from the state to provide two primary functions:
- They transport inmates from prison or jail to court and back.
- They serve civil process, delivering court summons.
In towns that can’t afford or choose not to fund their own police department, sheriffs departments are often contracted to provide basic law enforcement services.
Sheriffs are elected officials, and in a way, anyone can qualify to do the job. Although most sheriffs are certified law enforcement officers, elected sheriffs can serve as sheriff exclusively in an administrative capacity. They are not required to receive certification.
The elections are often not competitive. According to Marcoux, “there was someone else on the ballot the first year I ran in 2002, and I haven't had any opposition since then.” In the last two election cycles (28 races), only 40 percent of sheriffs’ elections were contested.
On a recent visit to Sheriff Roger Marcoux’s offices in Hyde Park, our question-asker Patrick Warn wondered if Marcoux finds being an elected law enforcement official different than being a professionally employed officer, such as a police officer.
“Do you have to do things differently because you do have an election coming up?” Patrick asked.
“It’s that old three-legged stool that you hear used for different things,” Marcoux responded. “You partly have to be a good businessperson because you've got to find the money to keep your operation going — because there’s no money coming from the state, basically. And then you've got to be a good politician — you've got to learn you’ve got to be a people person, if you're going to survive. And then the third one is you've got to know something about law enforcement.”
While the state pays sheriffs roughly $80,000 in baseline salary, Marcoux told VPR he took home $150,000 in pay last year. “By statute,” he explained, “each sheriff is allowed to have contracts with law enforcement type functions.”
Vermont law allows sheriffs to take home up to 5 percent of every contract they bring into their department. As a sheriff, the more enterprising you are, the more money you make.
Often, towns will contract county sheriff departments to provide police services. Sheriff Marcoux’s department runs an emergency dispatch center, which brings more than $800,000 into the department each year. His department also contracts with Vermont’s Department of Mental Health and Department for Children and Families.
Marcoux is proud of his achievements on the business side of things.
“This entire building was renovated pretty much with money I raised, and I didn’t have to ask the assistant judges to do it,” he says. County-wide assistant judges provide sheriffs with a portion of their administrative budgets. “They just don’t have access to the money that it took.”
Still, Marcoux says, good sheriffs have to be scrupulous.
“It’s always sort of dangerous because when there’s a lot of money coming around, there's chances of it being, you know, mishandled or what have you, because different people have different levels of business acumen," he says. "So you want to make sure that you cover all your bases so that ... it’s very obvious there’s no corruption going on or anything like that.”
To help answer Patrick's question, we have the story of what happened when there was financial corruption in a sheriff’s department, in Windham County.
But first, let’s go back to 1976. Back then, the answer to this question of who oversees Vermont’s elected sheriffs was: the state Legislature. With impeachment.
In 1976, Bill Russell was 30 years old and two years into his job as the Vermont Legislature’s legislative counsel, or lawyer.
Among his earliest assignments? Impeach the Washington County Sheriff. It would be the first impeachment in Vermont’s history.
“There was no precedent,” Russell recalls. “We had to decide how the Legislature would function. But we did have a model: the one for Nixon!”
Watergate had taken place three years earlier. Now, in central Vermont, an elected official — a county sheriff — was accused of abusing his office. The sheriff’s name was Malcolm Mayo, but he went by “Mike.”
“He was accused of misbehaving in bars and in restaurants and sort of swaggering around with his power, and threatening people,” says Russell.
Allegedly, Mayo was in the habit of roughing up patrons at local bars. In one case, he was charged with assaulting someone. Then, Mayo’s deputy said Mayo told him to plant marijuana in the assault victim’s car. There were also allegations Mayo falsified documents, and instructed his deputies, basically, not to do their jobs.
The only way to hold Mayo accountable, Vermont's attorney general told lawmakers, would be to impeach him.
From the beginning, Russell says, lawmakers were conflicted about what to do. He remembers one member of the House Judiciary Committee asking, “‘What are we doing riding into town to impeach the sheriff? This is crazy.’”
Russell’s job was to assemble the case against Mayo. “I was like the prosecuting attorney at the time," he says.
Impeachment works like this: First, the House Judiciary Committee decides if there’s enough evidence to warrant a trial. If they vote yes, the official is considered “impeached.”
Mike Mayo remembers the day he learned the House committee had voted to impeach him. He was driving back to Montpelier from Waitsfield, when his office called.
“They radioed and told me that I had been impeached, and that I was gonna go before the Senate,” he recalls.
The next step was a trial in the Senate, during which senators act as both prosecutors and jury.
During Mayo’s trial, Mayo would have to testify before the Senate. Mayo says he was lucky: The state’s most renowned law firm offered to represent him.
“I had the two best lawyers in the state of Vermont,” Mayo recalls, “and the state had some of the worst ones.”
The state was represented by a handful of senators who had been to law school, but didn’t have much trial experience. They had help from Bill Russell, the legislative counsel. But Russell says that he too was ill-equipped.
“I [had] never been in a trial,” he says. “I had worked for the Legislature, I had worked for Congress for a while. But I had never been in a courtroom!”
He and the Senate were no match for Mayo’s two polished trial attorneys.
In the meantime, the hearings were front page news, from Boston to Burlington. The balcony was crowded with reporters. But especially at first, the process was chaotic.
Oreste “Rusty” Valsangiacomo, Jr., was one of Mayo’s defense lawyers. “So you stood up and you faced the Senate and the 30 senators at that time were considered the judges,” Valsangiacomo recalls.
He says he was shocked at the omissions of the prosecution. He says they seemed to lack a coherent strategy; they hardly interviewed witnesses. When Valsangiacomo was cross-examining witnesses, he remembers, one senator would object, then another would object to their objection, “and all of a sudden you have a 10-minute discussion amongst the senators as to whether or not the next question you've asked should be answered or not. It kind of just destroys the whole thing you’ve been trying to do.”
During the trial, Sheriff Mayo faced three articles of impeachment. The first two were based almost entirely on the testimony of a couple of sheriff's deputies, people who had worked for Mayo, and whose credibility, according to Valsangiacomo, became questionable.
“I think they got caught up in some things that were legitimate gripes or observations to make, but they just went wild with it,” he says. “And then when they started having to face cross-examination, and testing their story, I think they started saying, ‘Uh oh, this isn't … fun and games.’”
The Senate voted to acquit Mayo on the first two articles.
It was the third article which Valsangiacomo thought would be the toughest. He recalls a bar owner testifying that Mayo had been coming in with his badge and his gun, threatening patrons — even assaulting one.
“You could tell the tremendous change in their attitudes when it came to the third article,” he says, “they literally got P.O.’d at the sheriff ... I think they just shook their heads like, ‘Whoa.’”
If Mayo was going to be convicted, this would be his downfall. But Bill Russell, the lawyer for the Legislature, remembers that even this decision was muddled.
“It wasn't always clear what we were deciding, when we made a decision, as to whether or not we were deciding that the facts were true, or whether we were deciding that they would be an impeachable offense,” he says.
The vote was close on this last article. But this time, too, the Senate found Mayo not guilty.
“So he was acquitted in the Senate,” Russell says. “And that, in summary, is the story of the Mayo impeachment.”
As for Mayo, at the time, he says, “I wasn’t worried about it because I didn’t do anything wrong.”
But even Mayo’s own defense attorney, Rusty Valsangiacomo, wondered if the acquittal had more to do with a fear that conviction would lead to more impeachments:
“I think that some of them were looking back on all this and saying to themselves, ‘We don’t want to do this in the future. Solve it in a ballot box or solve it in the criminal law or whatever, or lawsuits. This is not why we’re senators.’”
The trial took three and half weeks, time when lawmakers could have been making laws. Ultimately, the state had to pay for Mayo’s lawyers — tens of thousands of dollars.
But Bill Russell points out, the Legislature was on a learning curve. “Now we know better. Or we could do it better … Maybe it’s better not to do it at all.”
Impeachment, Russell says, should be saved for only the most egregious of offenses.
Two years later, Sheriff Mike Mayo was voted out of office.
Since then, some less elaborate measures have been put in place to hold sheriffs accountable. This is the second part of the answer to Patrick’s question: In 1993, lawmakers began requiring all county sheriffs’ offices to have a financial audit every two years.
Mostly, the audits are used to make sure sheriffs have good record-keeping practices and keep their departments in the black. But, over time, these audits have also become a way to detect when something has gone awry.
“That's one of the best mechanisms, so that if there is something that financially is not right, we have an opportunity to find out about that,” says Randy Brock.
Today, Randy Brock sits in the Vermont Senate. Back in 2006, when Brock was state auditor, he got a tip.
“The auditor’s office received an anonymous letter,” he says, “that suggested that there were some things at the Windham County Sheriff’s Department that weren’t right.”
The county sheriff at the time was a woman named Sheila Prue. If Brock knows who sent the tip, he won’t say. The letter, he says, “alleged a variety of misconduct, involving money, involving the use of equipment, automobiles, and so on.”
Brock began to investigate.
“The more we looked, the more we concluded that we needed to look further,” he says. “And eventually we collected boxes and boxes of records; we collected every financial record that we could find in the department, and then proceeded to begin analyzing them.”
Brock and his team dug through credit card receipts, payroll, accounting spreadsheets, gas card purchases. They had the jurisdiction to do this because of that law from 1993, which requires audits of sheriff's departments. The audits are done by a third party, and submitted to the state auditor’s office.
By the time Brock got the anonymous letter, Sheila Prue’s was the only department of the 14 departments across the state which hadn’t conducted its audit for the previous year.
As Brock’s fraud investigators went through the boxes, they found receipts that didn’t make sense.
“Why would a sheriff's department that does not have a canine unit be buying pet food and pet beds and pet supplies?” Brock remembers wondering.
“There were cell phones that were issued to the sheriff's domestic partner and the sheriff's child,” he says, along with purchases for underwear and clothing, and handwritten checks Sheila Prue had made out to herself.
All told, Brock concluded Prue had misused more than $60,000. He published the details in a report, and sent that to the Attorney General’s Office, to the feds, and the Vermont Sheriffs' Association. And eventually, it got picked up in the press.
“I was astonished,” recalls Bob Audette, who had been a reporter with the Brattleboro Reformer for maybe a year when he got ahold of Brock’s report, outlining the allegations.
“The few interactions I had with Sheila, I never would have thought that she was doing this,” he says. “There were purchases for crazy stuff, like books for ‘banjos for beginners’ and cotton underwear.”
VPR wanted to talk to Sheila Prue, herself, about all this, and reached out to her attorney a few times. She didn’t call back.
“I think people were just stunned at the audacity, or the, I mean ... ” Audette hesitates. “Once it all came out it was like, it was almost ... the incompetence at even covering up the embezzlement.”
Even after the report hit the press, and after lawmakers asked her to, Prue refused to resign. Not even the state auditor could make Prue step aside.
“We suggested that she recuse herself from the financial operations of the department until such time as the ship could be righted,” says Randy Brock, the state auditor at the time. “And she declined to do that.”
Eventually, the state charged Prue with a handful of crimes: felony level embezzlement, and two misdemeanors, according to news reports.
Of course, even the courts can’t force an elected sheriff to resign. According to Vermont statute, a sheriff can return to office even after going to jail. But the Attorney General’s Office offered Prue a pretty sweet deal. If she pleaded guilty, agreed to resign and paid the county back $36,000, she could have her felony record expunged.
Prue agreed. She put down $10,000 toward her restitution. She resigned, she pleaded guilty, and then — the story took a bizarre turn. Bob Audette, the reporter, says an anonymous donor paid the remaining $26,000.
“You know, there was rumors about who made the donation. I was never able to track it down,” he says. “The donation too was like, ‘What? ... Well, that's really nice of someone, but they do know that she stole the money, right?' I mean, that's what embezzlement is. And she pleaded guilty.”
After the donation, Prue’s felonies were erased from the court record. If you look at the first charge in her court file, count one is whited out. Even state auditor Randy Brock says he can’t talk about what happened after he submitted his audit report. To the state, the felony never happened.
Prue never did any time. But with her resignation, the county could move on. The Brattleboro police chief took over in the interim. The following year, Keith Clark, the Bellows Falls police chief, was elected Windham County Sheriff. Eleven years on, Clark is still in office.
At this point we’ve seen two examples of accountability for Vermont sheriffs: an impeachment proceeding that ended in an acquittal, and an audit that ended in a resignation. But what if you’re just a regular citizen with a complaint? This is what our question-asker Patrick asked Sheriff Marcoux when they met up. Their exchange went like this:
Patrick: “If you weren't such a good guy, and I've got a problem with the sheriff's department … I want to see the budget and you won’t show me the budget, or, the deputy keeps driving over my flowers when he parks on the side of the road in front of my house trying to catch speeders or something like that, and I don't feel that I've got satisfaction on the issue from you. What's the process? Who do I go to say ‘Hey, you know, the sheriff's not doing the right thing. We need to make the sheriff do the right thing.’ Other than, like, supporting your opponent in the next election, what do I do?”
Sheriff Marcoux: "So, here in this department we have citizen complaint forms for them to fill out and every complaint is investigated. And the more serious the complaint —"
Patrick: "Who investigates it?"
Sheriff Marcoux: "Well, if it's, you know, your deputy was rude, or something like that, we'll do it through the chain of command here. We've got a captain or a lieutenant, what have you. If it's criminal in nature, it automatically, or I will ask the State Police to investigate it. If it's not criminal in nature, but, you know, pretty serious, I have probably for the last two or three years hired a private investigator, former state trooper to investigate the case."
Patrick: "Sorry to interrupt — so, again you say that you have. That sounds like it's a you-as-sheriff policy, not a statute."
Sheriff Marcoux: "So, that's the way it is. There's nothing you can do unless you get some kind of impeachable offense. With law enforcement, if I was arrested for domestic violence and couldn’t carry a firearm — you know, it’s still pretty difficult to move an elected official out of office. So, it all gets taken care of at the next election."
According to Richard Gauthier, the executive director of the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, sheriffs are “as autonomous as any elected official — any county-elected official. And there's no state agency that regulates them per se.”
It’s notable that Gauthier is saying this, because the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council is quite possibly the closest you can get to a state agency that oversees sheriffs. It runs the Vermont Police Academy, and it certifies all law enforcement officers in the state, including sheriffs who go for certification. It can also take those certifications away.
“Everybody who has certification in Vermont is subject to losing their certification, having it revoked by the council ... for certain violations,” Gauthier says.
This has been the law since 1991. And Gauthier says there’s a very short list of reasons for which any officer can have their certification suspended or revoked.
“Essentially right now it's for conviction of a felony or failure to get your annual number of training hours to maintain your certification,” he says. “That's it right now.”
That’s it right now — but thanks to legislation passed just last year, starting in July, that list is going to get much longer.
“We're actually talking about three categories,” Gauthier says. One category that now includes misdemeanors, in addition to felonies. (So that domestic assault example that Sheriff Marcoux gave Patrick would have consequences come July.) There’s another category for things like misreporting training hours. And then there’s a category for “gross professional misconduct.”
It’s “the more interesting and sort of more groundbreaking category,” according to Lia Ernst, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, which helped push for this change.
Ernst says gross professional misconduct could mean “sexual harassment, particularly involving physical contact or misuse of position … We pushed hard and cared deeply about biased enforcement being grounds for revocation of certification. That was a major victory to get that in here.”
Excessive use of force and using your position as law enforcement officer for personal gain are also included, Gauthier notes.
Ernst stresses that these are just examples: "It's not the end all be all and nothing else can fall under it, which I think makes this more forward-looking rather than just, ‘Here's the things we can think of that would be really bad.’ … I think we can anticipate that the expanded grounds for decertification will result in an increased number of decertifications.”
And, Ernst adds: “This is something that the law enforcement community was asking for, too.”
“A number of us were engaged in the struggle to get this for over five years,” Gauthier confirms. “It's a very big deal.”
And this year, legislation has been introduced to transfer this whole process over to a non-law enforcement agency called the Office of Professional Regulation. So cops wouldn’t be in charge of disciplining other cops. But as if now, that legislation hasn’t been passed.
Either way, though, here’s the catch. Remember how we said earlier that you don’t actually have to be a certified law enforcement officer to serve as a sheriff? That means technically, come July, a county sheriff could commit a crime or discriminate or sexually harass someone, and this sheriff could lose his or her certification, and still serve as sheriff. It would just be in an administrative capacity.
Still, Lia Ernst, of the Vermont ACLU, says that concerned citizens should feel empowered to call out bad behavior.
“I think people often feel that they don't have anywhere to turn. So it's important that people know there are options besides just, you know, voting in the two-, three-, four-year later election,” she says.
Ernst says you actually have a bunch of options besides complaining to an agency or the Criminal Justice Training Council. You can go to the Vermont Human Rights Commission for discrimination issues. You can take advantage of the Public Records Act, by requesting police reports, dashcam footage and body cam footage.
Of course Ernst gets in a little plug for her own organization: “You can always make a complaint to your friendly ACLU of Vermont. We get lots of complaints about law enforcement conduct and we can in appropriate circumstances get involved.”
And then she points out something that almost everyone we spoke to really emphasized:
“There's the friends in the press,” Ernst says. “It's important to shed light on misconduct, and the free press is a fundamental cornerstone of holding government's feet to the fire and holding government officials accountable.”
The press. That’s us! And yes, we recognize this is getting a little self-serving, but it’s true. Journalists do work to hold the powerful to account.
Sheriff Roger Marcoux talked about this as well.
"Where I think that public officials ... have a lot of concerns is what they're reading about themselves in the press,” he says. “I take calls from the press whether it's a good thing or not that I've got to deal with, because I figure if word gets out there that I've taken this job for granted, I figure I'm not going to get elected next time around.”
Randy Brock uncovered Sheriff Sheila Prue’s embezzlement thanks to a whistleblower. So he recognizes the power of raising your voice.
“Sheriffs are in the public eye and the public is probably one of the best controls that there is,” Brock says. “Because when citizens, when people, see something that they don't think is right, generally there are a lot of people who aren't shy about telling others about it. Now, they might not write an anonymous letter, but what they might do is a letter to the press, phone calls to their legislator, and so on.”
And Bob Audette, who reported on the Prue case, obviously agrees.
“Whoever inside the sheriff's office spilled the beans — we never were able to figure out who that was — deserves a little bit of credit too. Whoever that is. If they're listening, they deserve a big shout out. And a thank you.
So, in the parlance of this show: Be brave. Speak up.
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Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Innovation Fund, and from VPR members. If you like our show, consider becoming one.
Special thanks to Howard Weiss-Tisman and Peter Hirschfeld.
Our editor is Lynne McCrea and our theme music is by Ty Gibbons. We have engineering support from Chris Albertine. Other music in the episode selected by Liam Elder-Connors and used under a Creative Commons license: