EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 15, 2012

Sheriff Cousins: No more cash from workers

By Keith Eddings
keddings@eagletribune.com

Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins said yesterday he will stop soliciting campaign contributions from hundreds of his rank-and-file employees following allegations — which he denied — that he pressures them to give, including by blocking their promotions if they don't.

The allegations were broadcast Monday night by WBZ-TV, a CBS affiliate in Boston, which reported that 300 sheriff department employees and their family members gave a total of $400,000 to Cousins' campaign organization since 2005. The station cited Cousins' financial disclosure forms and the eight current or past sheriff's department employees it interviewed, none of whom was identified in the newscast.

"Everyone is expected to donate," one of the anonymous sources said during the news broadcast, whose voice was garbled and whose face was silhouetted by the station. "If you don't donate, you're not promoted, you don't get anywhere."

State campaign finance law allows elected officials to solicit employees for contributions, but prohibits them from soliciting the gifts in government buildings or acting against employees who say no. The law also bars elected officials from using government resources to help them make solicitations off the job, including personnel or other records that contain employee contact information.

Cousins, a Republican, confirmed the WBZ-TV report that $400,000 of the $1.2 million he has raised since 2005 came from his employees and their family members. But he denied unduly pressuring employees to give and said he never solicits them on the job or uses department records to obtain their contact information.

He said he gets contact information for employees from a public web site operated by the state comptroller. Reminded that the web site does not include employee addresses or phone numbers, Cousins said he obtains the information by asking employees for it when they show up to volunteer at his campaign offices.

"There are employees who would like to participate," Cousins said. "They have a right to ... A lot of people chose not to. That's their right. No one bothers them. Nobody pressures them."

Campaign finance law also caps an individual's contribution to a candidate at $500 a year. Cousins disclosure forms show several family members of sheriff department employees have given to his campaign, including three family members of Superintendent Joseph Furnari. The three have donated $4,450 since 2005, records show. Furnari himself has donated $625 over the seven years.

Cousins said his staff was able to identify the person who spoke anonymously on the WBZ-TV interview and said it is a disgruntled employee who resigned rather than accept a reassignment in a recent round of layoffs that cut his staff from 600 to 502. Cousins would not name him, but said he is a former union leader who has a grievance pending against the department alleging he was forced to retire.

"It's very clear to me what the issue is," Cousins said. "My answer to that is, we're not going to accept any donations from any (union) members in the future, from this day forward."

That would cut Cousins pool of donors in the department from 502 to the 27 ranking employees, all of whom serve at his pleasure.

The vow was the second by Cousins to reform his campaign fund-raising over the last year. In May, after the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance fined his campaign organization $10,000 for several "serious breaches of campaign finance law," including accepting undocumented cash and money-order contributions, Cousins said he would no longer accept donations under $25. The smaller donations were the subject of many of the violations.

John Walsh, the chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, yesterday asked the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance to investigate this week's allegations by WBZ-TV.

Jason Tait, a spokesman for the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, would not comment on the WBZ-TV allegations or the Democrats' request for the investigation.

Cousins is one of the region's most prolific fund-raisers, even in the years when not on the ballot. He said the $150-a-ticket golf outing he hosts each July at the Gannon Golf Course in Lynn sold 288 tickets last year. The event cost about $38,000 to stage, including $9,300 for the shirts and windbreakers he handed out at the event, records show.

Cousins is in his third term as sheriff and was elected to the Statehouse twice. In November, 2010, he defeated Democrat Damian Anketell by a margin of 2-1.

Yesterday, he said he will likely run for a fourth six-year term in 2016. He said he also is considering running for a higher office, which he would not identify.

He had $23,470 in his campaign accounts on Dec. 31.

• • •

Join the discussion. To comment on stories and see what others are saying, log on to eagletribune.com.