Hallowell Police Chief Eric Nason was investigated by Maine State Police last year for allegedly sexually assaulting a female officer who was hired full-time by the city’s department several months after she reported the incident, the Kennebec Journal has learned.

Nason was never disciplined by the city and was allowed to continue managing the officer who accused him, even during a four-month-long criminal investigation by state police that ended in October with no charges filed against the police chief. The officer and chief still work together a year later.

The chief denies wrongdoing, saying through his attorney, Walter McKee, that the June 2, 2013, incident was “a 100 percent consensual encounter” and that Nason and the officer “were involved in an intimate relationship” prior to the incident. McKee said the allegations made by the officer against Nason were unfounded.

The officer’s lawyer, Darrick Banda, said his client maintains that she was too intoxicated to consent to sex that night.

Even so, the relationship between the city police chief and an officer under his supervision was inappropriate and the city’s handling of the case has been ethically questionable, according to third-party experts who reviewed case documents for the Kennebec Journal.

The state police closed the case on Nason on Oct. 18, about a week after the Hallowell City Council promoted the part-time reserve officer to a full-time position, per Nason’s recommendation, on Oct. 7. City councilors didn’t learn about the state police investigation until May, according to the mayor.

Both Nason and the officer declined interviews through their attorneys. The Kennebec Journal isn’t identifying the officer by name because she is an alleged sexual assault victim.

But the 22-year-old officer recently hired Banda as her attorney amid concerns that Nason, 48, may have retaliated because of the sexual assault complaint.

Banda provided the Kennebec Journal with confidential city documents, including a March notice placed in the officer’s department mailbox in which Nason accuses her of lying during the state police investigation against him.

Nason’s attorney, McKee, only agreed to answer questions via email, saying the chief and the officer “are both professionals and have put this matter behind them.”

Nason was hired permanently as chief in 2005 after about 16 years on the force. The Hallowell Police Department comprises four full-time officers, including the police chief, according to the city website.

Banda said the officer enjoys police work and while she’s uncomfortable working under Nason, she has tried to make the best of the situation.

But Banda said last year’s incident has been a hard burden to bear, affecting the officer “just like it affects any assault victim,” harming her trust in others and self-confidence.

Florida police practices consultant Chuck Drago said Nason should be fired if he had was a sexual relationship with the officer at all.

Drago said any of Nason’s ongoing interactions with her could be seen as being positively or negatively biased, creating a difficult work environment.

“There’s just no way for them to function,” said Drago, a former assistant police chief in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “And the fault lays entirely on the police chief.”

Hallowell police department rules prohibit untruthfulness, criminal conduct and sexual harassment but don’t address sexual relationships between officers, or between supervisors and underlings.

Donna Strickler, executive director of the Sexual Assault Crisis and Support Center, which serves sex-crime victims in Kennebec and Somerset counties, speaking generally without having reviewed case details, said sexual relationships between a boss and subordinate are concerning in all work relationships.

She said advances from a superior “could lead to somebody’s feeling like they needed” to have sex with the person “or would or should because of that difference in power.”

“There needs to be objectivity in order for the system to work, be it law enforcement” or any other setting, Strickler said.

INVESTIGATING THE COMPLAINT

Before the June 2 incident, Banda said Nason and the officer had sex on two occasions, but the officer told Nason that their sexual relationship should end.

The sexual assault complaint was made June 2, Banda said, after Nason invited the officer and a colleague of theirs to Nason’s camp in central Maine, where the three drank alcohol. The colleague eventually left.

Banda said the sexual assault happened after that, and the officer was too intoxicated to remember anything more than bits and pieces of the nighttime incident. After it ended, Nason drove the officer home, according to Banda.

That night the officer called Christopher Hutchings, a Hallowell police sergeant at the time, who drove the officer to the hospital and called the state police to report the sexual assault, according to Banda. Hutchings, now an Augusta policeman, didn’t respond to telephone and email messages for this story.

The Kennebec Journal requested transcripts of any 911 calls he made around the time of the incident, turning up just one, made the morning of June 3 in which Hutchings asks to speak to state police Detective Ryan Brockway, who other records show investigated Nason over the complaint.

McKee said Nason “was not aware of any issue” before an interview with state police, but cooperated completely with the investigation.

Details of the state police investigation are hazy. The agency has provided little documentation of the case and says the reason the investigation was closed is confidential. State police attorney Christopher Parr has denied repeated requests by the Kennebec Journal for police reports related to the case, citing a privacy exemption under Maine public records law.

On Friday, the Kennebec Journal sued the state in Kennebec County Superior Court for reports and other case accounts, saying the public’s interest in the conduct of a city official and the police investigation outweigh privacy concerns.

Parr has confirmed certain case details, including the day the case on Nason was opened, June 3, 2013, and the day it was closed, Oct. 18.

Emails provided by Parr in response to a Kennebec Journal public records request show that Brockway’s case was closed after it was reviewed by Brian MacMaster, chief of the investigation division of Maine attorney general’s office. An office spokesman declined comment on the case.

Banda said his client was interviewed repeatedly during the investigation, but he said she wasn’t initially apprised when the case was closed, finding out only after she called state police seeking information about it.

The officer never recanted her sexual assault allegation against Nason, Banda said.

McKee, however, said “neither was too intoxicated to consent” and she falsely suggested to investigators that the June 2 encounter with Nason was the first time they had sex.

But Banda said if she was lying to get away with her sexual assault claim, she would not have initiated a second interview with state police the next day to tell them about her past relationship with Nason.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” he said of McKee’s claim.

‘EVERYBODY JUST CLOSED THEIR EYES’

At the city level, nothing changed once the investigation started.

City Manager Michael Starn, who is Nason’s supervisor, said he heard about the investigation soon after it started from members of the city police department but took no disciplinary action against Nason.

He also commissioned no internal or independent investigation from an external law firm. Those have been common practices when police chiefs are accused of possible misconduct that falls short of criminal charges, like recently in Bar Harbor and Fryeburg.

Citing conversations with members of the department during the state police investigation, Starn said he determined “whatever activities took place were done off-duty between consenting adults.”

However, Starn didn’t name the people he talked to and said he hasn’t seen police reports in the case, saying he thought the state police would contact him if he needed to take action on Nason’s employment.

“I left it into other people’s hands,” Starn said. “I felt my officers were all performing their duties the way I was expecting them to perform their duties and if something did occur off-duty, I didn’t feel the need to know all the details of it.”

Mayor Mark Walker, who took office in January and was a city councilor before, said he didn’t know about the investigation until councilors received anonymous letters about the investigation this May.

However, Charlotte Warren, the mayor until January, said she was visited confidentially at her home — she wouldn’t say by whom — and informed of the Nason incident shortly after it happened. Warren said she did her job as mayor, which was “to take the information to the person who would be responsible for it” by informing Starn.

Starn said he didn’t want to air the case before the council to protect the police officials’ privacy. Walker said he agreed with the decision.

“He is the one that would handle it and I think he appropriately kept it under his control while they were doing the investigation and once the investigation was done, nothing was pursued,” Walker said.

But Drago, the Florida police consultant who reviewed case documents, said Nason should have been immediately suspended from his job after the city learned of the Maine State Police investigation, and the city should have conducted its own internal investigation.

Such an investigation in these types of scenarios would ensure the integrity of the department, said Michael Cunniff, a former federal Drug Enforcement Administration agent who is now a Portland lawyer and conducts internal investigations for cities and towns.

It should be “an objective review” of the chief’s conduct “against the backdrop of internal and municipal policies,” Cunniff said.

If the investigator found the Hallowell officer lied about the relationship, Drago said the officer should be fired. But if there was a sexual relationship at all, the chief should be fired, he said.

The officer’s elevation to full-time status in October concerned Drago, who said “the city’s almost forced to hire” the officer because of the appearance of bias that could result if the officer was rejected for the promotion.

“That’s why this chief of police should absolutely be gone,” he said.

Banda said Nason should have been “called to the carpet” for the relationship, “perhaps abusing his power and authority and influence over an impressionable young officer.”

“Everybody just closed their eyes and didn’t do anything,” Banda said.

WORK RELATIONSHIP QUESTIONS

While their work relationship was uncomfortable, Banda said the officer had few problems with Nason after the officer was hired full-time in October.

That was until April 30, when she received a note on department letterhead from Nason saying the officer was untruthful on two occasions during last year’s investigation with state police.

Shortly before then, Banda said she hired him amid concerns that Nason may try to fire her over that assertion.

Nason’s attorney, McKee, denied that the notice was retaliatory. Nason found out after the officer’s October hiring that she had made false statements to state police about whether or not their relationship predated the June 2 incident, McKee said. The officer initially suggested to police that it had been “the first intimate act she had with Chief Nason,” he said.

Banda rejects that characterization, saying the officer volunteered the information about the relationship to state police the day after the initial interview following the encounter. He noted that the officer was still drunk and in the hospital when first interviewed by state police.

The notice, Nason wrote, was prompted by a need to disclose to prosecutors the officer’s past lies in future criminal proceedings. In it, Nason wrote that if disclosure “creates any issue with the prosecution of cases,” or if other lies are discovered, the officer could lose her job.

The officer testified at a Kennebec County Superior Court trial in May that resulted in a conviction of someone whose arrest the officer made.

Banda later wrote the city a letter denying that his client had lied, saying Nason has “a clear conflict of interest” in the matter and the notice appeared to have been issued in “direct retaliation” for her sexual assault complaint.

McKee said the notice was required by law and not an attempt to bully the officer.

“This created an uncomfortable situation but nothing more,” McKee said.

In response to Banda’s objections, the city rescinded the notice Nason wrote to the officer. Starn said it never went into the officer’s personnel file.

Nason notified Banda that it was rescinded in a May 9 letter, but he said the action “in no way” excuses the officer’s untruthfulness.

Experts who examined case documents for the Kennebec Journal found issues with Nason being allowed to discipline the officer relating to the case he was accused in.

Cassia Spohn, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University, described the police chief’s letter as “ethically problematic” given the fact that he was accused of the assault.

Drago said any possible discipline against the officer should have been delegated to another employee to guard against the appearance of conflict.

“Once confidence in the institution is lost, then the officers or agents or employees affected by this oversight responsibility lose confidence. They lose morale,” Cunniff said. “In a police context, not only might they fear being killed or injured in the course of their duties, they’re also concerned about what happens to them in the corridors of the police station or city or town hall.”

Asked whether Nason considered having someone else issue the notice to the officer, McKee said, “Given the size and experience of the department, Chief Nason was the only person who could handle this situation. With small departments this sometimes happens. The evidence on the false statement was also clear and indisputable.”

CASE FALLOUT

Drago said there’s the danger of a lawsuit, as the city has “a tremendous liability and it continues every day” that Nason and the officer work together.

Banda said the officer’s goal isn’t to reap financial gain from the city, but said a lawsuit is possible if the city treats the allegation as a fire-able offense.

He said his client simply wants to do police work in a stress-free environment. She is set to enter the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in August, according to the academy’s director, John Rogers, having passed a polygraph and other tests.

Banda said Nason should be fired for the sexual relationship with the young officer and his actions since then.

“No one has taken really a serious look at Nason’s conduct, … not just on the allegation of the assault,” Banda said, “but on how he conducted himself before and after.”

McKee, though, said the police chief did nothing wrong.

“It is unfortunate that this private relationship has become news,” McKee said, “but that was not the doing of Chief Nason who has at all times acted appropriately and within the bounds of the law, something he has done for his entire career.”

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652

[email protected]

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme


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