Follow the money: Sheriffs’ campaign donations get a much-needed look

A report from government watchdog organizations finds that an important share of contributions to sheriffs’ campaigns, including in Mass., are ‘ethically conflicted.’

The ICE facility at the Bristol County sheriff's correctional complex in Dartmouth. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The national conversation on policing reform has been focused mostly on police departments. But a new national report highlights the need to look closely at sheriffs and the potential for conflicts of interest that stem from campaign donations.

Often referred to as politicians with a badge, sheriffs are elected to office in most parts of the country and they typically remain there for a long time. They control the majority of the nation’s jails, and their deputies make thousands and thousands of arrests a year.

It’s why government watchdog organizations Common Cause and Sheriffs for Trusting Communities wanted to make sure sheriffs are working for their constituents. So, via public records requests, they set out to analyze sheriffs’ campaign donations and tried to match them with people who own or work for entities the sheriffs’ offices do business with.

The result, while limited, is telling. The report, “The Paid Jailer,” includes data from 48 sheriffs (which is fewer than 3 percent of all sheriffs nationwide) in 11 states, including Massachusetts. Researchers identified more than $6 million — or roughly 40 percent of all contributions analyzed — that creates possible conflicts of interest.

The findings raise an ethical question: Even when it doesn’t represent a campaign finance violation, should sheriffs be taking money from the people they do business with? A perceived conflict of interest is not any better than an actual conflict. And just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s ethical.

“Sheriffs and campaign finance — that is, who is donating to sheriffs’ campaigns — are a virtual blind spot that has not been covered enough,” said Keshia Morris Desir, Common Cause’s census and mass incarceration project manager and one of the authors of the report. “The role of the sheriff is not often talked about, but they have a huge impact on our daily lives. Sheriffs should be listening to their constituents and not wealthy special interests.”

These special interest companies whose employees or owners were found to have donated to sheriffs include “legal firms that may handle FOIA requests on behalf of sheriffs’ offices and/or wrongful death lawsuits they may face, jail construction and real estate businesses, tech companies, health care service providers, etc.,” said Morris Desir.

According to the report, 13 of the 14 Massachusetts sheriffs have received more than $2.6 million in contributions from such donors, including owners and staff in telecommunications, construction, and health care companies. The top recipients of “ethically conflicted donations,” are Plymouth County, with $738,000, Worcester County, with more than $500,000, and Bristol and Hampden counties, with more than $300,000 each.

Beth Rotman, director of money in politics and ethics at Common Cause and a coauthor of the report, pointed to the need to reform campaign finance by limiting contributions from donors associated with entities seeking or doing business with the sheriffs’ offices. Rotman highlighted Connecticut and New York City’s example as evidence that it can be done. Both have strong “good government” programs, including limits on such campaign contributions and small-donor democracy programs, which is a form of public financing that seeks to replace the role of big money in electoral politics.

It’s no accident, Rotman said, that Connecticut and New York City “became the first state and the first major city, respectively, to make all phone calls from incarcerated people free of charge.” She said that’s evidence of the impact these structural reforms can have in “the lives of thousands of incarcerated people and their families and demonstrates what is possible when elected leaders are freed from the stranglehold of special interest money.” (It almost goes without saying, but Massachusetts charges incarcerated people and their families for prison calls.)

In Massachusetts, Sandy Zamor Calixte recently launched a campaign to run against Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins. Zamor Calixte told CommonWealth magazine that she won’t accept “donations from department employees or current contractors.” In Bristol County, so far there are two Democratic challengers who will face off in a September primary to then run against Sheriff Thomas Hodgson in November. Paul Heroux, the mayor of Attleboro, and Nick Bernier, a lawyer from Fall River and a former prosecutor, both described Hodgson’s practice of accepting donations from current contractors as unethical, even though they’re legal, and said they won’t be accepting such donations. Bernier said he won’t be accepting donations from staff if elected.

Jessica Pishko, a Texas-based lawyer and journalist who writes extensively about sheriffs in America, said she doesn’t know of a jurisdiction in the country that limits campaign donations to sheriffs specifically.

“The closest analog I can think of is district attorney races where there’s been a focus to limit donations from police unions,” said Pishko in an interview. For instance, there’s been an effort in California to ban campaign donations from police unions to DA candidates, she said.

Pishko said sheriffs benefit from being at the unique nexus of electoral politics and law enforcement. Jails, she said, are a huge and complex enterprise that shouldn’t be run by elected officials. She pointed to King County, Wa., where, in a 2020 ballot question, voters approved changing the sheriff position to an appointed one.

Shifting sheriffs from elected to appointed positions is probably a political nonstarter. All the same, Massachusetts should look into placing limits on who sheriffs take donations from — to boost their accountability and transparency, and to strengthen the public’s trust in them.

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