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Sheriffs, DAs should refuse campaign money from employees

It’s safe to assume that few employees of the state’s sheriffs and district attorneys are clamoring to finance their bosses’ political ambitions, but it’s all too easy to understand why many do. When elected law enforcement officials accept campaign contributions from their employees, there are bound to be accusations that people who donate are more likely to be hired, retained, and promoted than people who don’t.

A recent article by the Globe’s Peter Schworm and Matt Carroll found that while at least seven sheriffs and district attorneys accepted no contributions from employees between 2008 and 2012, another seven accepted $20,000 or more during the same period. At the top of the list was Essex County Sheriff Frank G. Cousins Jr., who collected at least $195,000 from employees before ending the practice last year amid allegations that employees had been pressured to donate. Other sheriffs and DAs should enact similar policies. It’s a matter of clean politics and good management: Nothing undercuts morale more than the perception that public employees’ livelihoods are being subordinated to political favoritism.

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Several sheriffs and DAs maintained that they take a neutral posture toward employee campaign contributions, neither encouraging nor discouraging them. But such assertions require a suspension of disbelief on everyone’s part. The kind of passionate disagreements over policy and ideology that usually motivate campaign contributions generally don’t exist for elected law-enforcement offices. Meanwhile, most sheriffs’ and DAs’ offices are big enough that some officeholders might regard them as a rich source of potential contributors — but small enough that the kind of goodwill a contribution will inevitably generate with the boss will be noticed by everyone else.

The danger of employee contributions is all the more pronounced because races for sheriff or DA generally aren’t big-money contests. For instance, Cousins’s campaign finance report showed only $36,000 at the end of 2012, which makes the $195,000 he collected from his 515-employee office over the previous several years look all the more significant.

Under state law, public employees are forbidden from using their authority to solicit campaign donations, and public employees have the right to contribute to campaigns if they choose. Some sheriffs and DAs say they’re reluctant to limit their employees’ rights to participate in the campaign process. But the far greater danger is that those employees will feel obliged to do so.

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