Who funds your local sheriff? Report raises new questions about campaign finance

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(Reuters) – An inherent conflict of interest stems from many political donations to sheriffs across the country, including from medical providers and surety companies doing business with them, according to a new report by watchdog group Common Cause.

Common Cause and Communities for Sheriff Accountability, a coalition for prison reform, looked at campaign finance reports from 2010 to 2021 provided by a sample of sheriffs in 11 different states, including Massachusetts, Louisiana and Maryland. They found that about 40% of all contributions reviewed, or more than $6 million in donations, created a potential conflict of interest and incentivized incarceration in order to increase profits.

The groups scrutinized some of the more than 3,000 sheriff’s offices across the country, in part because of their “opposition” approach to requests for public information. The selection criteria mean these offices are “more likely to represent a pattern than exceptional cases,” Common Cause said in the report.

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The seemingly conflicting donations came from a variety of companies, including construction companies that build jails, telecommunications companies keen to provide data and phone services at these facilities, and law firm representatives who represent sheriffs’ offices in the case of misconduct. The contributions aren’t necessarily illegal, but that’s only because many states’ conflict of interest and ethics laws are woefully inadequate, the groups say.

The eye-opening report highlights gaping loopholes in campaign finance regulations and other public oversight mechanisms for sheriffs — elected politicians who often go unnoticed, despite the enormous powers and significant responsibilities of their office.

A spokesperson for the National Sheriffs’ Association did not respond to questions and a request for comment.

Keshia Morris Desir, Mass Incarceration Project Manager at Common Cause, told me that The jailer paid The report, which was released in January, “attempts to highlight a blind spot in criminal justice reform efforts.”

“We’re really trying to bring attention to this issue because we usually only think of the police department when we talk about law enforcement reform, even though sheriffs are actually elected officials,” said Desire.

About 90% of the 3,000 sheriffs in the United States are white men, according to the report. Moreover, the decisions of these offices are not as visible as the policies emanating from the offices of other politicians; qualified candidates are almost always subordinates of the incumbent; and the average term for a sheriff is estimated at 24 years, according to a 2018 law review article by James Tomberlin, now an attorney at Latham & Watkins in DC.

They make arrests, run local jails, and handle civil law enforcement, from conducting evictions to providing gun licenses and even enforcing mask warrants.

Businesses large and small tend to view sheriffs as the head of a major bureaucracy, with profit potential, according to the Common Cause report.

Janet Hoeffel, a professor at Tulane University School of Law, wrote in a 2015 law journal article that these offices are able to command resources and grow, like any other government bureaucracy.

For sheriffs in particular, “the larger the jail or office, the more contracts the office has to grant,” Hoeffel wrote. “These valuable contracts for food, laundry, plumbing, electricity, etc. create more vested interests that seek to protect and expand the status quo” – in this case, more arrests and incarcerations .

The possibilities of grafting are well illustrated by some striking recent examples.

Philadelphia’s longest-serving sheriff was sentenced jailed in 2019 for accepting bribes and personal benefits for nearly a decade in exchange for funneling more than $35 million in contracts and fees on foreclosed homes to a businessman particular. A current sheriff’s chief legal officer retired last year after the Philadelphia Tribune reported the office issued a similar illegal contract to an online auction company.

The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office is under civil rights investigation for “deeply concerning allegations regarding conditions of confinement at its correctional facilities, resistance to lawful oversight, and other misconduct,” the California attorney general’s office said. announcement last month. The Santa Clara Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

The investigation was spurred by indictments by several senior officials over an alleged scheme involving the trading of campaign contributions for concealed-carry permits, a local NBC News affiliate reported in August 2021.

And, the founder and CEO of a company that is now the largest prison health care provider in the United States – the Wellpath scandal – will be condemned this month for a 13-year bribery and fee-for-service scheme involving the former sheriff of Norfolk, Va.

These revelations point to a system “incentivized to imprison more people and turn a blind eye to any harm suffered by those in prisons,” according to Common Cause.

Indeed, a Reuters special survey in October 2020 showed that prisons with private healthcare have four more deaths per 10,000 inmates than public facilities.

The study of the groups revealed that “[b]Business interests can build a relationship with sheriffs by sending even small contributions,” noting dozens of direct contributions to sheriffs’ campaigns from surety companies under $3,000.

Desir at Common Cause told me that campaign finance reporting systems across the country are so varied and poorly managed that some sheriff’s offices have responded to inquiries with handwritten lists of their political contributions. The Common Cause report includes a series of important policy recommendations, including restricting campaign contributions from individuals and entities that do or seek business with the state or city.

“The reason we studied this is that sheriffs control very large parts of the mass incarceration system, including immigration, and they make important decisions about the health and safety of millions of people. incarcerated,” Desir said. “Drawing attention to their offices presents an opportunity to strengthen disclosure laws and make other reforms to improve campaign finance” for these powerful public officials.

(The views expressed here are those of the author. Reuters News, under the Principles of Trust, is committed to integrity, independence and freedom from bias.)

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