Jolene Almendarez/Ithaca Voice

Editor’s Note: This is one of three stories being published today by the Ithaca Voice about the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office.

See the other two stories here and here.

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Ithaca, N.Y. — The Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office told a guard accused of having a “romantic embrace” with an inmate that if the guard resigned he would not face criminal charges, according to District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson.

The sheriff’s office did so despite being told that sexual contact between an inmate and a guard constitutes a criminal offense, Wilkinson said. The district attorney’s office has now opened a criminal investigation into the guard’s conduct.

“A representative of the sheriff’s office told me that they made the decision to offer the corrections officer an opportunity to resign without them pressing charges,” Wilkinson said in an interview with the Ithaca Voice on Monday.

“The sheriff’s office felt that it was in the county’s best interest to get rid of the corrections officer and to avoid paying huge sums in salary during any administrative leave … Misguided as it was, that was their sincere reasoning.”

Wilkinson is currently personally leading an investigation of what was initially reported as a “romantic embrace” between an inmate and a corrections officer.

The incident was seen by two corrections officers from another county who were conducting an accreditation tour of the Tompkins County Jail, according to Sheriff Ken Lansing. (Wilkinson has not confirmed that the “romantic embrace” was a kiss; that description comes from Lansing.)

The corrections officer resigned soon after the incident and was quickly escorted out of the jail when seen, Lansing said.

Wilkinson has said she learned about the incident by the office of County Administrator Joe Mareane.

See related: Tompkins D.A. to personally investigate ‘romantic embrace’ in jail

The Ithaca Voice received an anonymous call reporting the incident and directed questions to the county administrator at least two days before Wilkinson said she was told about what happened.

Lansing said he couldn’t speak to Wilkinson’s claim because he hadn’t been present at the sheriff’s office meeting where the punishment for the guard was discussed.

See related: Confronted with criticism, Tompkins sheriff cites conspiracy against him

“I wasn’t a part of that conversation, so I don’t know what was said or not said at that point in time because I wasn’t here and I wasn’t even in the office,” Lansing said.

Sheriff’s claims about DA

Last week, Wilkinson told the Ithaca Voice that she wasn’t sure why it took several days for her office to learn of the case.

Lansing disputed that in an interview on Monday, saying that someone in his department spoke with Assistant District Attorney Andrew Bonavia about it soon after it occurred.

“If (Bonavia) chose not to tell Gwen (Wilkinson) for some reason, so be it. But I don’t like the idea … that it sounds like we went off on our own,” Lansing said.

Lansing, while seeming to suggest the incident wasn’t criminal in nature, defended his office’s handling of the case.

“This was important; it was serious, just by the circumstances — not so much the law — and it had to be addressed,” he said. “And we had to address it and they did address it immediately.”

Lansing added, in an apparent Monica Lewinsky reference: “It’s very serious. But crime-wise, is it serious? It’s not (Bill) Clinton,” he added, laughing.

Jolene Almendarez/Ithaca Voice
Jolene Almendarez/Ithaca Voice

However, the district attorney said this account from the sheriff was also a misrepresentation of the facts and the law.

Wilkinson said that at a meeting at the sheriff’s office on Friday, sheriff’s office personnel agreed with Bonavia’s interpretation of the events.

According to Wilkinson, the sheriff’s office staff acknowledged that Bonavia — who was also at the Friday meeting — was asked about whether certain acts would constitute a crime, but not about an ongoing criminal investigation.

“We discussed the issue of their consultation with one of the assistant district attorneys. The sheriff staff member acknowledged that he called the ADA to inquire whether the fact pattern constituted a crime, and he acknowledged that we told him it did,” Wilkinson said.

“…We did not receive a follow-up request from them to help with the drafting up of charges, and they acknowledged that they did not re-contact us or press charges themselves.”

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Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.