By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey and Zach Hagadone
An investigation into “the potential misuse of public funds” at the Bonner County Fairgrounds is underway, prompting local law enforcement officials to urge constituents to “avoid incendiary accusations and finger pointing,” according to a Nov. 14 joint press release from Bonner County Prosecuting Attorney Louis Marshall, Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler and Sandpoint Police Chief Corey Coon.
According to a statement from Sandpoint City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton and Coon, emailed to the Reader on Nov. 16, the Sandpoint Police Department officially opened its investigation Sept. 20, after it was referred to SPD by Marshall.
“There would be a conflict of interest or appearance thereof for the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office to investigate,” they stated. “This is standard procedure and best practice for law enforcement agencies to refer out cases that involve organization employees or their family members.”
The Bonner County Fairgrounds falls within the jurisdictional limits of the city of Sandpoint and, therefore, the Sandpoint Police Department.
According to public records obtained Nov. 16 from the city of Sandpoint, Coon first reached out to Bonner County Commissioner Dan McDonald regarding the investigation on the evening of Nov. 1, outlining a number of specific allegations his department had been asked to investigate: “failing to follow county policies on part-time employees, completing contracts with said employees and issuing 1099 to said employees for tax purposes”; “using Bonner County Fair funds for personal use; and “misappropriation of donations from [Sandpoint High School] grad night.” The investigation concerns the alleged actions of late-Fair Director Darcey Smith, who died Oct. 31 in an apparent suicide.
In the wake of Smith’s death, the Bonner County Fair Board met Nov. 8 to work through an extensive agenda consisting mostly of office policy items, such as reviewing and possibly revising procedures related to handing out fairgrounds keys, the locations of various debit cards and current money handling practices. No changes were made to these policies at the Nov. 8 meeting, but a workshop was held Nov. 14 to further review and discuss the items.
Any changes to fairgrounds policies will need to be adopted at an official board meeting, which are typically held on the second Monday of each month at 5:30 p.m. in the fair office’s conference room.
Attending their first fair board meeting on Nov. 8 were Bonner County commissioners’ office Operations Manager Jessi Reinbold and Bonner County Deputy Prosecutor Bill Wilson. Reinbold said during the meeting that she was there to help with “basic housekeeping items,” and both Reinbold and Wilson advised the board members on the purpose of executive sessions, the use of workshops and instructed the board to vote again on items that were already approved at a prior meeting, which lacked minutes.
Smith had served as Bonner County Fair director since 2018, and her unexpected death created a sense of urgency to reorganize the fair’s operations.
As well, according to public records, oversight of the fair board by county officials appears to have ramped up in late July, when Bonner County Deputy Prosecutor Scott Bauer initiated an executive session looping in officials from risk management and human resources to consult on a range of issues, from federal compliance to bonding for fair board members to Smith’s own job description.
In a formal grievance filed by Smith to McDonald and Marshall dated Aug. 9, Smith wrote that she felt “manipulated and intimidated” by the pressure to call an executive session, noting in her complaint that she felt “uncomfortable scheduling this executive session without BOCC knowledge.”
According to her recounting of a conversation with Bauer on July 21-22, she was told by the deputy prosecuting attorney that the matters to be discussed “fall squarely in the scope of the Fair Board authorities and not the BOCC.”
“You work for the Fair Board not the BOCC,” Bauer allegedly said. “Please reach out to the Fair Board chairman and confirm.”
Smith wrote in her grievance that, “[It] seemed odd that out of the blue Scott Bauer was giving me direction and intervening in Fair Board activities, seeing that I have been the fair director since 2018 and never has he ever been involved in any capacity,” adding later that in her decade as a county employee she had “never felt more disrespected by another employee” due to the “withholding of information” prior to the executive session and Bauer’s alleged instructions to the Fair Board president not to speak with Smith about the issue.
Smith’s grievance named four county employees: Bauer, Risk Manager Christian Jostlein, Human Resource Director Cindy Binkerd and Alissa Clark, another human resources official — all of whom were present at the meeting. Smith alleged “general harassment” against them all.
“The inappropriate manner in which this was handled is one of the most egregious plans and [an] obvious attempt to somehow intimidate the members of the Fair Board and embarrass and shame me into compliance,” she stated in her complaint, later requesting that the four employees named play no part in investigating the grievance.
“I fear retaliation and continued harassment,” she concluded.
Asked for a statement regarding the grievance, Bauer told the Reader in a Nov. 16 email: “I haven’t been provided a copy of the grievance so it’s hard for me to respond, not [having] been asked any questions regarding it. I cannot imagine how anything I did would have been inappropriate or harassing to Darcey.”
Coon referenced the grievance during an early November email exchange with McDonald, citing his interview with Smith in which “she alleged the Bonner County HR Department and the Legal Department had been harassing her.”
“It was my understanding from our conversation you had cleared her of any wrongdoing,” Coon wrote, later asking “if there was any validity to the allegations.”
McDonald responded in a Nov. 2 email to Coon that he “would need to see the email and date where I said that Darcey had been cleared.”
“As I explained in our executive session, there was an overabundance of accusations being made by many of the same parties throughout the 10 months or so regarding Darcey that were all shown, via documented evidence to be false accusations,” he added.
In a phone call Nov. 16 with the Reader, McDonald clarified that the allegations of wrongdoing against Smith ended in a “kind of a de facto clearing, as the person complaining didn’t choose to follow up after Darcey’s explanation. With no follow up complaint or additional concerns, I considered the issue satisfied.”
As for the “unfounded accusations and threats” referred to in the press release from Marshall, Wheeler and Coon, which was posted Nov. 14 to the sheriff’s Facebook page, Marshall told the Reader: “There have been highly inappropriate statements made mostly on social media, some of which blame county employees and elected officials for bullying Ms. Smith and causing her death.
“We simply are encouraging people to refrain from this type of conduct and wait for the investigation to be concluded before rushing to judgment,” he said.
Asked to comment on the investigation, Wheeler did not immediately respond. Asked whether he intended to comment before press time, as well as whether he was one of the “elected officials” accused of “bullying” Smith, Wheeler replied via email: “No.”
Asked whether he meant “no” he did not wish to comment, or “no” he was not one of the elected officials referenced, Wheeler did not specify before press time.
The investigation is ongoing, and this is a developing story.
While we have you ...
... if you appreciate that access to the news, opinion, humor, entertainment and cultural reporting in the Sandpoint Reader is freely available in our print newspaper as well as here on our website, we have a favor to ask. The Reader is locally owned and free of the large corporate, big-money influence that affects so much of the media today. We're supported entirely by our valued advertisers and readers. We're committed to continued free access to our paper and our website here with NO PAYWALL - period. But of course, it does cost money to produce the Reader. If you're a reader who appreciates the value of an independent, local news source, we hope you'll consider a voluntary contribution. You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.
You can contribute at either Paypal or Patreon.Contribute at Patreon Contribute at Paypal