BOSTON (CBS) – State law says government officials aren’t supposed to ask private companies they do business with for campaign contributions, but former employees tell the I-Team that’s exactly what’s been happening for years in the Essex County Sheriff’s Department.
Whether it’s a chartered fishing trip aboard one of the Captain’s Ladies in Newburyport, or the gas being pumped into the Essex County transport vans at a Getty Station in Middleton, if you’re a company doing business with the Essex County Sheriff’s Department there’s a good chance you’re also donating money to Sheriff Frank Cousins’ political war chest.
“That’s the way things are done,” said Steve Young, an Essex County Sheriff’s Department employee for 20 years. “If you wanted a contract you’re going to end up paying some money.”
Young says department vendors were routinely asked to contribute to the sheriff’s campaign fund by employees of the department.
“We were approached by a company that was trying to work on the boiler system at the correctional alternative center and they were asked to give a check, and they got the contract,” Young said
The I-Team matched vendor records with campaign contributor lists and found 99 vendors contributed $182,000 thousand dollars to sheriff Cousins’ campaign fund.
Those vendors run the gamut from a janitorial service, to a towing company, to a Washington DC-based lobbying firm which includes Bradford Card, the brother of former White House chief of staff Andrew Card.
Former Essex Sheriff’s Department employee Michelle Krevette says it was standard for vendors to be asked to show up at Cousins’ political fundraisers.
“The vendors are always at the functions, they do contribute,” Krevette said. “That’s called pay-to-play and it’s wrong and it actually is illegal,” said Pam Wilmot of Common Cause Massachusetts, citing the state conflict of interest law, which makes it illegal for public employees to solicit campaign contributions from persons or entities doing business with their government agency.
The law does not prohibit vendors from deciding on their own to contribute to an elected official.
“People need to get contracts because they’re the best vendor, the best at what they do, not because they’re contributing to an elected official,” Wilmot said.
Members of the Capolupo family, owners of the construction company SPS New England, have contributed thousands of dollars to Cousins. They are also vendors.
The sheriff’s department has paid the family $189,000 in rent over the last two years for two buildings in Salisbury.
The I-Team has learned Sheriff Cousins also benefited personally from his relationship with the Capolupo family through a real estate deal at the Atlantic Breeze Condominium complex in Salisbury.
In May of 2003, Cousins bought Unit 16 from the Capolupos for $260,000 and sold it one year later for $349,000 — a profit of $89,000.
“Was that just a coincidence?” Young asked. “It’s a profitable coincidence.”
Sheriff Cousins has refused repeated requests for an interview. In a statement, Cousins called the condo deal “a routine market transaction.” He also said any suggestion that vendors “received or retained any business as a result of a campaign contribution is absolutely untrue.”
Since the I-Team started asking questions about Cousins’ fundraising practices back in February, the sheriff changed his policies, announcing he would no longer accept contributions from anyone who works for or does business with his department.