By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey
It’s been just over a week since Bonner County Prosecuting Attorney Louis Marshall, Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler and Sandpoint Police Chief Corey Coon released a joint statement urging constituents to cease directing “unfounded accusations and threats” toward their agencies as they investigate allegations against the Bonner County Fairgrounds and late-Fair Director Darcey Smith.
According to a Nov. 1 email between Coon and Bonner County Commissioner Dan McDonald, obtained Nov. 16 via a public records request to the city of Sandpoint, those allegations include “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.”
SPD is leading the investigation due to the fairgrounds’ location within city limits.
In light of Smith’s death by apparent suicide on Oct. 31, Marshall told the Reader that the Nov. 14 statement from the three law enforcement officials was meant to discourage the public from making claims that “blame county employees and elected officials for bullying Ms. Smith and causing her death.”
The investigation, which launched before Smith’s death, marks the latest in what’s been a tumultuous year for the Bonner County Fairgrounds, dating back to October 2021, when commissioners signed a lease with the Sandpoint Community Center Corporation, allowing the nonprofit to use an empty parcel near the fairgrounds for the proposed Sandpoint Ice Arena. Proponents of the project, including McDonald and Smith, lauded the indoor facility as an opportunity to provide more funding for the fairgrounds and further recreational opportunity for locals in the winter.
Wheeler mounted vigorous opposition to the proposal, alleging in November 2021 that the parcel in question was actually intended for the eventual expansion of the Bonner County Jail and equating the lease to an attempt to “defund the police.”
In December 2021, Wheeler leveled an open meeting law violation against the commissioners, alleging that the ice rink lease agreement had been improperly noticed. The Idaho attorney general’s office issued an opinion in February stating that the county “likely” violated open meeting law by being too vague on its business meeting agenda and, on March 1, commissioners voted to void the ice rink lease.
Smith and the fairgrounds also drew pushback from the sheriff while attempting to accept a grant to expand the fairgrounds RV campground in July. Wheeler said the two acres in questions would be better suited as the eventual home of a parking lot outside a new justice complex.
The county accepted the RV campground extension grant despite the sheriff’s opposition.
“We are not trying to take things away from the sheriff,” Smith said in July. “We are good neighbors to them.”
Smith referenced the tensions between the fairgrounds and the sheriff’s office in her Aug. 9 grievance against four county employees, including Bonner County Deputy Prosecutor Scott Bauer, who is also Wheeler’s son-in-law. The grievance followed an executive session with the fair board, which Bauer initiated.
“Seems odd that in the middle of what most perceive to be some type of ‘land war’ between the BOCC and the Sheriff that the Sheriff’s son-in-law all of a sudden takes a bizarre interest in the Fair Board and Fairgrounds,” Smith wrote, “attempting to apply Sheriff’s Office policies and place the Fair under Sheriff’s Office technology. All in a very manipulative and intimidating manner.”
Bauer told the Reader Nov. 22 that the only portion of the executive session that pertained to the sheriff’s office had to do with transitioning the fair board’s IT services to the IT manager based out of the sheriff’s complex, who also manages IT operations for other county offices such as the clerk and assessor.
“We call it the sheriff’s IT simply because it’s based out of the sheriff’s office,” Bauer said, adding later: “It wasn’t to give the sheriff intel, because it is not actually set up that way. The information is siloed and segregated completely.”
Bauer also noted that he wrote the ice rink lease while representing the commissioners and the fairgrounds in the fall of 2021, effectively acting “against the sheriff’s interests.”
Marshall also weighed in on the suggestion that Bauer’s actions were at all tied to Wheeler’s clash with the fairgrounds, telling the Reader Nov. 22: “I want to make it very clear allegations pertaining to the fair director did not stem from the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office nor from Scott Bauer. They came to me from a few separate sources.”
Marshall said he was the one who assigned Bauer to the fair board to address those allegations.
“When allegations are made it is absolutely necessary for my office to make sure a proper investigation is performed or else the public loses confidence and believes things are just swept under the rug,” Marshall said. “The investigation, which is ongoing, is not being conducted by Sheriff Wheeler nor his office and he has in no way attempted to influence myself nor Chief Coon. We are solely interested in the facts and finding the truth.”
In a November email exchange with Coon regarding the investigation into Smith, McDonald also referenced the prior year’s intra-county clashes, noting that Smith faced “harassment from a few well-known members of the public over both the Ice Rink and the RV Park, which the Sheriff was an outspoken opponent of both.”
“While we saw some of that, we didn’t see it all,” McDonald wrote to Coon.
As for the alleged misappropriation of SHS Grad Night donations, records obtained through the city of Sandpoint included an email exchange between Smith and the representative of a Sagle gas station company, who was puzzled by the use of several gas cards that had been donated to students at grad night, but which appeared to have been redeemed by Smith, her daughter and two of her daughters’ friends — after Smith had organized the event at the fairgrounds.
“l am still struggling with understanding, if the certificates were distributed the way that you have claimed and the way that I understood that they would be, how three of the certificates ended up being redeemed by you and your daughter and out of the other three that have been redeemed to date at least two of them were signed by the same girl,” Heather Fournier, of Pacific Northwest Fuel, wrote to Smith on April 7 — an exchange that appears to have triggered the subsequent inquiries into operations at the fairgrounds.
“Can you offer an explanation as to how this would happen and also explain your previous response that you have no way of knowing who received them when in fact you yourself redeemed one?,” Fournier added in her April 7 email.
Smith responded to Fournier in an email April 11 that, “a LOT of the kiddos traded items/certificates from their [grad night gift] baskets with one another. I recall watching them sitting on the floor of the cattle barn trading with each other.”
She added that her daughter had traded with several classmates who were going to out-of-state colleges for their gas cards.
“Until you brought this to my attention, I had no idea other than the one I redeemed for my daughter, as to who had the certificates. … It is quite possible that the other five certificates could very well have gone to kids that I know, or that my daughter is friends with, but honestly Heather I can’t tell you who has them,” Smith wrote, later adding:
“At the end of the day, I cannot say where the other five certificates are. If you would like me to reimburse you for the five certificates that were redeemed, I will be more than happy to.”
Asked by the Reader in a follow-up phone call Nov. 16 how the issue with the gas cards played out, Fournier said, “In my opinion, it was not resolved.”
Additional reporting by Zach Hagadone.
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