A NEW NATIONAL report says campaign contributions to county sheriffs, including in Massachusetts, are rife with potential conflicts of interest from donors who stand to benefit from contracts or other decisions by sheriffs.
The report, issued jointly by the reform group Common Cause and a coalition called Communities for Sheriff Accountability, looked at campaign donations to 48 sheriffs in eight states from 2010 to 2021. It says some $6 million, or roughly 40 percent of all donations the sheriffs received, “create potential conflicts of interest.”
The report includes in its tally of potential-conflict campaign money contributions from those in the construction business, who it says may benefit from jail construction, lawyers, officials in the telecom sector, and those from transportation firms, all of whom, it says, could benefit from contracts with sheriffs’ departments.
The report included 13 of 14 Massachusetts sheriffs and said they accounted for nearly $2.7 million of the $6 million in potential conflict-of-interest donations across the 48 sheriffs’ departments that were examined. The top Massachusetts recipient in the report was Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph McDonald, with $738,000 in donations that the groups deemed an “apparent conflict.”
The next highest amounts among Massachusetts sheriffs were for Worcester ($505,000), Hampden ($397,000), Bristol ($325,000), and Suffolk ($319,000) counties. (Norfolk County was not included in the report.)
“When big money and special interests controls our politics, it dictates which policies are enacted and which ones are not enacted, and we saw that at every point in every jurisdiction that we looked at,” said Beth Rotman, director of the Money in Politics & Ethics program at Common Cause. “We’re not saying that they’re violating ethics law or that they’re doing something that is an illegal conflict of interest,” Rotman said of the donations to sheriffs. Rather, she said the report points to a “broken campaign finance system.”
Among the examples the report cites of donations to Massachusetts sheriffs is $20,365 from prison health care provider CPS Healthcare, $12,040 of which went to Bristol Sheriff Thomas Hodgson. The report says Bristol County’s corrections system, for which the company provides services, has been the subject of frequent inmate complaints about inadequate health care. The report says Massachusetts sheriffs have paid CPS Healthcare $9.8 million for services from 2012 to 2021.
The report says officials from Alabama-based NaphCare, another correctional system health care provider, have donated at least $7,100 to Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins during the period studied, during which “31 incarcerated persons died under the dubious care of Sheriff Tompkins and NaphCare in the Suffolk County Jail.”
Hampden County Sheriff Nicholas Cocchi, vice president of the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association, challenged the idea that contracting is tied to campaign donations. “The sheriffs’ offices must comply with all state laws regarding the awarding of contracts,” he said in a statement on behalf of the association. “The sheriffs cannot consider individual campaign contributions when awarding contracts and bids. State law determines to whom bids are awarded and the Commonwealth must approve all vendors.”
The report includes as potential conflicts donations from sheriffs’ department employees, a group that has long been a rich source of contributions – and campaign foot soldiers – for Massachusetts sheriffs.
Hodgson’s office, in a statement, said the report “alleges zero actual violations of Massachusetts campaign finance laws.” It went on to dismiss the report as “the opinion of a political organization thousands of miles away from Bristol County whose definition of conflict of interest is different than actual law. This is likely the first of many political attacks to be lobbed against Sheriff Hodgson and the other Massachusetts sheriffs who are up for reelection this year.”
Hodgson, a conservative Republican who once offered to send inmates to the US-Mexico border to help build the border wall following Donald Trump’s election, has long been a lightning rod for criticism from progressives. Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux, a former Democratic state representative, announced on Monday that he will challenge him this fall.
Last week, Sandy Zamor Calixte, a longtime official in the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department, announced that she plans to challenge Tompkins, her former boss, in this fall’s Democratic primary.
Zamor Calixte said the report from Common Cause and Communities for Sheriff Accountability highlights a serious problem with campaign donations. “I plan on running a campaign that models integrity by not taking money that presents a clear conflict of interest,” she said. “I’ve pledged not to accept donations from department employees or current contractors.”
The report urges broad campaign finance reforms, including public funding of those campaigns that limit contributions to small-dollar donors as well limits on donations from those doing business with government offices.
Rotman said there are “success stories out there” of reforms that have led to changes in policy. She cited limits imposed on donations by contractors in Connecticut and New York City, both of which have moved to eliminate telephone charges for inmates, an issue that has been a focus of prison reform advocates.
Although the report also obtained contracting data from eight of the 13 Massachusetts sheriffs included in the report, it counted as a potential conflict donations from people based solely on their listed occupations or economic sector, including lawyers, doctors, educators, energy firms and others that could have business with a sheriff’s department.
That swept up lots of donations from those who may simply be friends or supporters of a sheriff and not necessarily people with any vested interest in the operations of the sheriff’s department.
For example, $950 donations from the owner of a Greenfield heating oil company are listed under potential conflict contributions to Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan, but the company does not appear in the report’s database of vendors used by the sheriff’s department.
The founder of the Boston job training nonprofit Year Up is listed under donors to Tompkins.
A Weston school teacher is listed under donations to Worcester County Sheriff Lewis Evangelidis. Also appearing in the database of potential conflict donations to Evangelidis: $500 given in 2014 by then-candidate for governor Charlie Baker.