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California Sheriff’s Pay-to-Play Scandal Reflects Nationwide Corruption Potential Documented in Watchdog Report

by Jayson Hawkins

Engulfed in a campaign finance probe that has snagged ten others on corruption and bribery charges in an alleged “pay to play” scheme, the Sheriff of California’s Santa Clara County, Laurie Smith, announced in March 2022 that she would not seek another term to the office she has held since 1998. A year-long grand jury probe in 2020 resulted in indictments for five of Smith’s employees and five others who did business with the Sheriff’s Office, three of whom have pleaded guilty so far. The 70-year-old Sheriff herself was then indicted in December 2021 on corruption charges, leading to her retirement announcement three months later.

The timing is uncanny: Details of Smith’s alleged scheme corroborate findings of a watchdog report released the same month she was indicted.

That report, How Sheriff Campaign Dollars Shape Mass Incarceration, jointly published by Common Cause and Communities for Sheriff Accountability, outlines how sheriffs across the U.S. regularly receive campaign contributions from individuals and firms that subsequently benefit from Sheriff’s department operations.

Unlike the scandal in Santa Clara County, which earns only a footnote for its allegations that deputies brokered hard-to-get concealed-carry weapons (CCW) permits in exchange for donations to Smith’s 2018 re-election campaign, the conflicts of interest on which the report mainly focuses involve high-dollar county contracts for jail operations.

Examining campaign finance records from a sampling of 48 incumbent Sheriffs in diverse jurisdictions across 11 states over the years 2010 to 2021, researchers discovered that about 43% of all campaign donations these Sheriffs received came from companies or individuals that stood to gain financially from operations decisions the Sheriff made.

The donations came from a variety of sectors. Construction and real estate firms interested in building new jails supplied nearly 27% of the total hauled in by Sheriff’s campaigns. Companies that contract with jails to provide medical, communication and transportation services added almost another 17%.

In most states there are no conflict-of-interest laws to prevent such donations, nor a system of oversight to monitor who gave what to whom. Instead America’s roughly 3,000 Sheriffs perform their duties—making two million arrests annually; running county jails where roughly 750,000 people are locked up on any given day, nearly 75% of them pretrial detainees unable to afford bail; and providing “civil enforcement” functions like making evictions and, yes, authorizing gun permits—all largely out of the public eye and unhampered by oversight.

But people with financial interests in those operations notice, as reflected in the campaign donations the report catalogues. To avoid future scandals like the one in Santa Clara County, the report’s policy recommendation includes a ban on campaign contributions from individuals or businesses who benefit from Sheriff’s Office activities. Until state legislatures act, though, neither donors nor Sheriffs have any real incentive to change. 

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