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

Ride-along with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in Tampa, Florida
REUTERS/Octavio Jones
  • The Paid Jailer report

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

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

The groups examined a portion of the more than 3,000 sheriffs offices around the country -- in part because of their "oppositional" approach to public information requests. The selection criteria means those offices are "more likely to represent a pattern than exceptional cases," Common Cause said in the report.

The apparently conflicted donations came from a range of businesses, including construction companies that build jails, telecommunications companies eager to provide data and telephone service in those facilities, and representatives of legal firms that represent sheriffs’ offices on misconduct cases. The contributions aren't necessarily unlawful, but that's only because many states' conflict of interest and ethics laws are woefully inadequate, according to the groups.

The eye-opening report highlights gaping loopholes in campaign finance regulation and other public oversight mechanisms for sheriffs – elected politicians who often fly under the radar, despite the tremendous powers and important responsibilities of their office.

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

Keshia Morris Desir, mass incarceration project manager at Common Cause, told me that The Paid Jailer report, which was released in January, “tries to shine a light on a blind spot in efforts toward criminal justice reform.”

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

Roughly 90% of the 3,000 sheriffs in the U.S. are white men, according to the report. What's more, decisions of those offices aren't as visible as policy emanating from other politicians' offices; qualified candidates are almost always subordinates of the incumbent; and the average tenure of a sheriff is estimated at 24 years, according to a 2018 law review article by James Tomberlin, now an attorney at Latham & Watkins in D.C.

They make arrests, run the local jails, and handle civil enforcement, from conducting evictions to providing gun permits and even enforcing mask mandates.

Corporations big and small tend to see sheriffs as the head of a major bureaucracy, with lucrative potential, according to the Common Cause report.

Tulane University Law School professor Janet Hoeffel wrote in a 2015 law review article that those offices are able to command resources and grow -- much like any other government bureaucracy.

For sheriffs in particular, “the bigger the jail or the office, the larger the contracts the office has to give out,” Hoeffel wrote. “These valuable contracts for food, laundry, plumbing, electrical, and the like further create vested interests that seek to protect and enlarge the status quo” – in this case, more arrests and incarceration.

The opportunities for graft are well illustrated in some striking recent examples.

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

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

The investigation was spurred by the indictments of several top officials in relation to an alleged scheme involving the exchange of campaign contributions for concealed carry weapons permits, a local NBC News affiliate reported in August 2021.

And, the founder and CEO of a company that's now the largest jail healthcare provider in the U.S. – the scandal-plagued Wellpath – will be sentenced this month for a 13-year bribery and pay-for-play scheme involving the former sheriff of Norfolk, Virginia.

Those revelations point to a system “incentivized to jail more people and cast a blind eye to any harm suffered by those within the jails,” according to Common Cause.

Indeed, a special investigation by Reuters in October 2020 showed that jails with private healthcare have four more deaths per every 10,000 inmates compared to publicly run facilities.

The groups’ study found that “[b]usiness interest can establish a relationship with sheriffs by sending even small contributions,” noting dozens of direct contributions to sheriffs’ campaigns from bail bonding businesses that were under $3,000.

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

“The reason we studied this is that sheriffs control really large swaths of the mass incarceration system, including in immigration, and they make major decisions about the health and safety of millions of incarcerated people,” Desir said. “Bringing attention to their offices presents an opportunity to strengthen disclosure laws and make other reforms to improve campaign financing” for these powerful, publicly elected officials.

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Hassan Kanu writes about access to justice, race, and equality under law. Kanu, who was born in Sierra Leone and grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, worked in public interest law after graduating from Duke University School of Law. After that, he spent five years reporting on mostly employment law. He lives in Washington, D.C. Reach Kanu at hassan.kanu@thomsonreuters.com