Wednesday November 24, 2010

Breaking a promise to taxpayers, legislative leaders have failed to begin a top-to-bottom review of Massachusetts' sheriff operations that could save millions being lost to inefficiencies and questionable fiscal practices found at jailhouses across the state.

The nine-member commission was mandated by law last year to recommend improvements in the administration and finances of state sheriffs. Hundreds of millions of public dollars flow through the 14 sheriff's offices each year.

The commission has a Dec. 31 deadline to issue a comprehensive report on how to streamline sheriffs' operations, including sorting out the byzantine system of laws governing the county correctional system.

Beacon Hill's inertia comes as the state grapples with one of the worst fiscal crises Massachusetts has faced. Recent state audits have -- while noting some financial improvements -- raised serious questions about property and money management within many of the sheriffs' offices statewide.

Among the audit findings this year:

n Awarding no bid contracts.

n Running multi-million dollar deficits.

n Running civil process divisions at a deficit. Civil process is the serving of legal documents like subpoenas and eviction notices on parties for a fee.


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n The Nantucket Sheriff's use of a personal bank account to handle civil process funds.

n Physical inventory like food, office and cleaning supplies not matching warehouse lists and poor controls over items such as notebook computers.

n Denying the auditor access to records to the for-profit civil process corporation formed by the Barnstable County sheriff

n Providing free meals to employees in violation of state law.

Gov. Deval Patrick sought the transfer law -- effective Jan. 1, 2010 -- to gain more oversight into sheriffs' spending. His spokeswoman, Cyndi Roy, said only one of the seven sheriffs complied with the section of law requiring them to provide a full inventory of items such as weapons and vehicles to the governor's office by April.

"We don't have them because they didn't send them," Roy, who has since left the governor's office, said late last month. Plymouth and Bristol sheriffs sent their inventory lists to the Executive Office of Administration and Finance this month, a spokesperson there said.

In a summary report filed with the governor and lawmakers in April, Auditor A. Joseph DeNucci warned that widespread changes needed to be made to the current system to "protect the significant investment of taxpayer dollars that have been expended thus far" on all sheriff operations.

An expert in law enforcement fiscal management agrees.

"In the aggregate, these are red flags. The issues here are serious enough to warrant a deeper inquiry," said David Shapiro, an accountant and former state prosecutor who teaches at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

"These [audits] suggest that government managers, the county sheriffs, may be engaging in unsound fiscal practices. In lay persons' terms, they are wasting money," Shapiro said.

The audits were mandated by the 2009 law transferring the last of the seven independent sheriffs in Massachusetts to state control. Affected were the sheriffs in Barnstable, Bristol, Dukes, Nantucket, Norfolk, Plymouth and Suffolk counties.

Sheriffs in Berkshire, Essex, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire, Middlesex and Worcester counties came under state control in 2000 when the Legislature abolished their county governments following widespread reports of mismanagement.

"There is obviously a crying need to sort out all of the problems with the state assuming responsibility for the sheriffs' operations," said Mike Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. "The commission has a very important role and it's not acceptable that it's kicked into the weeds."

The governor's office declined to comment specifically on the audits, but issued the following statement: "Working with the Legislature, the Administration enacted critical county sheriff reform legislation last year. That reform is an important first step towards bringing predictability, accountability and transparency to the sheriffs' budgets."

The commission remained dormant until NECIR began making inquiries in October. At that point there was only one member but within days of an NECIR call, House Speaker Robert Deleo, D-Winthrop, made an additional two appointments, effective Oct. 27, his spokesman confirmed. Following NECIR calls, Senate minority leader Richard Tisei, R-Wakefield, and Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, made appointments to the commission last week.

Patrick hasn't made his appointment to the commission because he feels the Legislature, which has six appointees, should lead its formation, Roy said. Jim Walsh, executive director of the Massachusetts Sheriffs' Association, a membership organization of sheriffs, said in October he hadn't named his appointee because he's waiting on the Legislature. He did not return a phone call last week seeking comment.

Despite the transfer, which brings sheriffs directly under the control of the state Secretary of Public Safety, sheriffs remain elected officials with administrative and operational control of their jails and houses of correction.

Sheriffs aren't covered by state procedures standardizing how supplies, services and real property are purchased. Each has his or her own process for buying food, transportation, uniforms, supplies, vehicles and other items.

Sheriffs also control other funds with no state oversight, such as money charged to prisoners for phone calls and revenue generated by civil process.

In fiscal 2010, sheriffs were allotted more than $250 million by the state to operate 28 correctional facilities across Massachusetts.

Sheriffs, who also have routinely received millions in supplemental appropriations, are responsible for housing, transporting and running programs for an estimated 14,000 county inmates annually.

Sheriffs interviewed by NECIR argue their financial challenges stem not from poor management but unpredictable funding.

Sheriffs have historically relied on a mix of financial support including state funds, county revenue from real estate transactions and federal monies to house immigration detainees.

But the depressed real estate market has significantly reduced excise tax revenue from deeds and deep state budget cuts have forced some sheriffs to lay off workers and cut programs, the sheriffs said. The federal funding is also unreliable, they said.

And the takeover has fueled anger at Beacon Hill from Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, the lone opponent of the transfer, who said state funding remains uncertain.

"What really troubled me is that the governor said this is going to give the sheriffs a line item in the budget that they can count on at the beginning of the year and the truth of the matter is that hasn't happened," he said.

Hodgson said the commission should have met before the transfer law to devise solutions to the financial challenges sheriffs' face.

"I guess what really frosts my ass is I go to work every friggin' day and bust my ass," Hodgson said. "The bottom is falling out of the economy, people are out of work. These guys (politicians) are off doing who knows what but they are perfectly willing to grab their paychecks every two weeks. It's a joke."

Still, Massachusetts sheriffs have had a history of financial embarrassments.

In 2005, a state audit revealed a $613,000 deficit at the Plymouth County Sheriff's department leading newly elected Sheriff Joseph McDonald to temporarily stop paying bills for cleaning supplies, gas and other expenses.

McDonald blamed the fiscal mess on his predecessor, Joseph McDonough, saying the office's financial management was worse than the Enron or Worldcom scandals because it involved public money.

In 2005, the auditor found that former Worcester County Sheriff John M. Flynn failed to pay state and federal taxes on a rent-free farmhouse he lived in for four decades on the jail grounds in West Boylston.

In the auditor's April report, he expressed particular concern about how civil process was handled, in part because of a lack of state oversight.

Sheriffs appoint deputies to serve civil process. They collect millions annually and some offices have reaped substantial profits. Surpluses have been used to fund equipment, weapons, vehicles and consultant fees, while other civil process divisions were run at a significant loss, the audits show.

Conflicting laws passed since the 1990s add to confusion about where the millions in civil process revenue should go -- to the state or the sheriffs.

Barnstable County Sheriff James M. Cummings denied auditors access to records for his civil process for-profit corporation, according to the audit of that office. Cummings did not respond to requests for comment.

Shapiro, a critic of the current system, said running a profit center has no relation to the sheriff's public safety mission.

"It's ridiculous," Shapiro said. "There is no good reason to have a for-profit arm of the county sheriffs."

Norfolk County Sheriff Michael Bellotti, president of the Massachusetts Sheriffs' Association, ran his civil process division at a deficit, an audit of his office states.

"As of January 1, 2010, the NSO's civil process operations collected revenue of $596,505 and had expenses of $690,739," the audit states.

Bellotti said there wasn't a deficit because he had only transferred funds to another account temporarily to keep operations running. He said he has made deep cuts in his entire operation, including eliminating 80 jobs since 2006, to control costs.

"I promised that I would be running a more efficient operation and we are getting there," Bellotti said.

This year's audits also found problems within sheriffs' offices transferred to state control over a decade ago.

The May 2010 audit of Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins noted that while information technology resources were "adequately safeguarded and environmentally protected," stronger internal controls were needed.

There was no formal policy for the "assignment and use of notebook computers" and staff had failed to record 37 desktop computers with an estimated cost of $27,675 on inventory records, the audit states. The sheriff, in response, said the computers were all accounted for but just kept on two different inventory lists.

Worcester County Sheriff Guy Glodis had awarded $74,000 in no-bid contracts, offered free meals to his staff in violation of state law and failed to conduct monthly physical inventories of food and supplies, the audit of his office states.

Glodis told the auditor he would rectify the issues, except for the free meals because that would require a change in a union collective bargaining agreement. Glodis did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit, investigative reporting newsroom based at Boston University. Visit them online at www.necir-bu.org.