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Suffolk County sheriff admits to violating state law by hiring niece, asking subordinates for child care

Suffolk County Sheriff Steven W. Tompkins.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Suffolk County Sheriff Steven W. Tompkins has admitted to violating state law by creating a no-bid job for his niece and by repeatedly asking his subordinates to run personal errands for him, according to an agreement he signed with the state’s Ethics Commission.

Tompkins, a former adviser to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s election campaign who is well connected in Boston’s political circles, has now paid a $12,300 fine for the wrongdoing, the commission announced Monday — the third largest publicly announced fine levied by the commission in the past three years.

In an interview, Tompkins defended hiring his niece as a communications staffer in 2017. “We had a need in external affairs, and because that’s what she does — marketing, communications — I put her there,” he said. He also stated explicitly that he had not created the position for her.


But that claim directly contradicted the agreement he signed, which stated that he had simply informed his chief of external affairs that his niece — who was not vetted — would soon begin working for the department.

The Ethics Commission previously fined Tompkins $2,500, in 2015, after he asked store owners to remove his election opponent’s campaign signs from their windows while invoking his position as sheriff. Tompkins has also previously faced accusations of campaign finance irregularities.

The latest violations stretch back to 2014, Tompkins’ second year as sheriff, according to the agreement signed by Tompkins and the Ethics Commission’s executive director, David A. Wilson.

Beginning in that year, and continuing through 2022, Tompkins asked Sheriff’s Department employees, including his executive assistant, to transport and provide child care for his children, according to the agreement.

“This transportation and childcare generally occurred during normal business hours, while the SCSD employees were being paid by the Commonwealth,” according to the agreement. His executive assistant also attended to Tompkins’ private business, including scheduling appointments, while on the clock, according to the agreement.


In 2016, Tompkins’ wife died and his niece moved into his house to help care for Tompkins’ children. Then, in November, Tompkins informed the head of the department’s External Affairs Division that the niece would soon start working there as a public information officer, according to the agreement.

“She’s a marketing and communications professional,” Tompkins said in the Monday interview. “So instead of having her just sit around the house all day, I gave her a job in our external affairs department.”

But the hiring appeared to be irregular, according to the agreement. “The Chief of External Affairs had not requested the filling of any such position and did not interview the niece or receive or review her resume prior to her joining the Division,” the agreement said.

While working for the department, the niece left work during business hours once or twice a week to transport Tompkins’ daughter, according to the agreement. She earned more than $58,000 before resigning in January 2018, according to state payroll records.

Tompkins’ niece could not be reached Monday.

Tompkins violated the state’s conflict of interest law by creating the position for his niece and asking subordinates to attend to his personal business, according to the agreement. The niece’s compensation and the errands were both things of value that Tompkins improperly obtained for himself and his niece through his official position, the agreement said.

As Suffolk County sheriff, Tompkins oversees two Boston jails with a combined capacity of more than 2,500 inmates. One of the jails, on Nashua Street near the TD Garden, has been plagued with violence in recent years.


Tompkins was appointed sheriff in 2013 by Governor Deval Patrick. Previously, he had served as the sheriff’s department’s spokesman.

At the time, critics pointed out that Tompkins — a communications professional — seemed not to have relevant law enforcement experience and alleged that he was a “political hire.”

Patrick agreed.

“It’s a political job, so the folks that are criticizing it as a political hire, tell them: they’re right,” Patrick said.

Since his appointment by Patrick, Tompkins has won election campaigns in 2014, 2016, and last year, when he he beat his former chief of external affairs, Sandy Zamor-Calixte, in a Democratic primary.

During those campaigns, controversy dogged him. A 2016 investigation by Boston 25, a local television station, described a “pay to play” culture at the sheriff’s department where employees frequently donated to Tompkins’ election campaigns. A 2021 report by Common Cause, a government accountability think tank, documented political donations to Tompkins by vendors hired by the department.

Still, Tompkins has maintained his political capital.

When he launched his 2022 re-election campaign, Warren showed up at the kick-off event, according to Tompkins’ campaign. A year earlier, then-city councilor Michelle Wu trumpeted Tompkins’ endorsement of her in her mayoral campaign.

In the interview Monday, Tompkins dismissed the Ethics Commissions’ findings as unfair — and appeared to contradict some of the statement he had signed his name to in the joint agreement.


He said that his subordinates had helped him with his personal affairs as a show of solidarity after his wife suddenly died — not because he had leveraged his position to ask them to do so.

“If there’s a law or policy against family members, or colleagues, helping family members or colleagues in a time of duress, I really think that is something that the legislators should look at because I just think it is unfair,” Tompkins said.

He also disputed a key contention of the Ethics Commission. Although he acknowledged hiring his niece, he said, “I did not create the position,” directly contradicting the agreement he signed.

He added that the commission’s decision to fine him would reopen his family’s wounds. “This is a situation that’s going to cause my family to relive this, and it’s going to be particularly hurtful,” Tompkins said on Monday. “We’re still trying to recover from something that happened seven years ago.”

In a press release Monday, the commission said Tompkins’ actions could undermine public trust by causing a “reasonable person to doubt” the ability of Tompkins and his subordinates to fairly perform their official duties.

Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Mike Damiano can be reached at mike.damiano@globe.com. Sonel Cutler can be reached at sonel.cutler@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @cutler_sonel.