Melissa Harris-Perry: Hi, everybody. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and this is The Takeaway. A recent report from the nonprofit groups, Communities for Sheriff Accountability and Common Cause investigated campaign finance data of sheriff campaigns across the country and found a pattern of conflicts of interest and ethical concerns.
The report called The Paid Jailer reveals more than $6 million in potential conflicts of interest for sheriffs in 11 different states. These sheriffs, who are elected officials, receive contributions from businesses that stood to benefit from contracts with the sheriff offices and jails under their control. Keshia Morris Desir is Census and Mass Incarceration Project Manager at Common Cause, thanks for joining the show.
Keshia Morris Desir: Thank you for allowing me to be on the show.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Absolutely. All right, Keshia. Let's just start by telling me a little bit about how this report came to be. Why the decision to take a look at elected sheriffs?
Keshia Morris Desir: This report is really a combination of about one year of research. We sent about 100 Freedom of Information requests to different county sheriffs. Of those 100 FOIA requests that we sent, about 48 sheriffs came back with contracts that they have with different industries. Of the 48 sheriffs, we digged into the campaign finance reports of those sheriffs and what we found was really striking. We found that 40% of all the donations that we researched came from industries that served to benefit by doing business with the sheriff's office.
We found that those business interests really can establish a relationship with the sheriff by making even really small contributions. For example, in Massachusetts, we saw that CPS Healthcare, documented as one of the worst prison and jail healthcare companies in the country, spent about $20,000 on sheriff campaigns in Massachusetts, with 12,000 of those donations going directly to Sheriff Hodgson in Bristol County, and those low-level donations paid off about 500 fold for CPS Healthcare because they were then awarded about $10 million in contracts from 2012 to 2021.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Pause right there for a second, Keshia. How do we know that the contracts are a direct result? I get it, there's like a follow the money and a bit of a presumption of that kind of influence, but do you know anything about the contracting process? Were they using redacted bids? Did this company actually put in the lowest bid? I'm trying to figure out, these are the appearance of an ethical problem or an actual ethical problem.
Keshia Morris Desir: That's the thing, we really don't know. We know that the appearance of a conflict of interest is sometimes just as damning as an actual conflict of interest. What we say and how we define conflicts of interest is we say that this is the appearance of an ethically conflicted donation because these industries are doing business with the sheriff's office like construction industries, food services, weapons manufacturers and those folks are donating and then receiving contracts even if they're not doing a great job. That is the case across industries.
In Florida, we saw that in Pinellas County a transportation company called G4S, they donated about $6,000 in campaign contributions, and then they still had their contract renewed even with multiple separate instances of people dying in their care.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Keshia, you're curling my hair here with some of the stories that you have been telling us. Again, help us understand who county sheriffs are, what is under their control? If I live in a community with an elected sheriff, what kinds of aspects of our community are they managing?
Keshia Morris Desir: Absolutely. The sheriffs control a large portion of our lives. They patrol our communities, sheriff deputies arrest more than 2 million people a year and they also, in certain places, work with ICE to put people in detention centers. Then they're also responsible for helping landlords evict their tenants. As this report details, these sheriffs also oversee our jails and that's probably one of their biggest responsibilities.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Are county sheriffs always elected? Are there any places where they get into office some other kind of way?
Keshia Morris Desir: In most of the communities that we have come across sheriffs have been elected. There are more than 3,000 sheriffs across the country and, again, they have enormous unchecked power. Their roles differ by state, but they play, as I said, three major roles, to police, to make arrests, to supervise the jails. They oversee people in those jails, about 746,000 individuals at any given time.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Given how frequently are sheriffs and how important they are, and how frequently it is that they are elected, you would think, sort of the theory of elections, that allows us to hold them particularly accountable because if they were appointed, they could be doing these kinds of things and we wouldn't know about it.
What I'm wondering is whether or not this visibility-- You said that you tried to do the FOIA request, you only got back about half of them, which is not so bad for FOIA, really, but I'm wondering if you've seen any sheriffs, for example, have a strong candidate running against them in the next election as a result of these kinds of ethical concerns?
Keshia Morris Desir: Of these 100 sheriffs that we chose, most of them are coming up for election this year. A part of our goal is to make sure that people get the data, they see who is donating to their sheriff, and see whether or not their sheriff has some ethically conflicted donations and that they can make the decision for themselves whether or not the sheriff is someone that they want to be representing them.
On our website where you can find the report, thepaidjailer.org, we list all of the data that we got from campaign finance reports and also from contracts. This is important because a lot of states don't make this information accessible. We believe that campaign finance reports should be available and accessible online, but many of the places that we researched did not have this information easily accessible. We had to, as I said, do some FOIA requests, we had to send emails and that really shouldn't be the case because these are our elected officials. We should know who is donating to them.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Keshia Morris Desir is Census and Mass Incarceration Project Manager at Common Cause. Thank you for being here, Keshia.
Keshia Morris Desir: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. This was great.
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