Karen L. Nober
Communications Division Chief
For Immediate Release – September 23, 2015
Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins Pays $2,500 Civil Penalty for Violating the Conflict of Interest Law
Displayed his Sheriff’s ID when asking business owners to take down his campaign opponent’s campaign signs
The State Ethics Commission approved a Disposition Agreement (“Agreement”) in which Steven Tompkins (“Tompkins”), the Suffolk County Sheriff, admitted to violating G.L. c. 268A, the conflict of interest law, in 2013 by identifying himself as Sheriff when asking eight business owners in his district to take down his opponent’s campaign signs that were displayed in their shops. Pursuant to the Agreement, Tompkins paid a $2,500 civil penalty for the violation.
Section 23(b)(2(ii) of the conflict of interest law prohibits a state employee from using or attempting to use his official position to secure for himself or others unwarranted privileges or exemptions which are of substantial value and which are not properly available to similarly situated individuals. According to the Agreement, in 2013, Tompkins went to eight retail shops in Roxbury that were displaying campaign signs for Douglas Bennett, Tompkins’ 2014 campaign opponent. The signs all read, “Vote for Sheriff Bennett.” At each of the shops, Tompkins orally identified himself as Sheriff and displayed his official identification. He then requested that each business owner remove Bennett’s campaign signs. All of the business owners complied with Tompkins’ request.
The Agreement states that Tompkins violated the conflict of interest law by using his official position as Sheriff to secure the removal of his opponent’s campaign signs. The removal of his opponent’s signs upon his request was an unwarranted privilege of substantial intangible value, which personally benefitted Tompkins as a candidate for Sheriff.
“It is unreasonable to think that any shop owner in this situation would have felt comfortable denying what appeared to be an official request from a law enforcement official,” said Executive Director Karen L. Nober. “Under these circumstances, the requests made by Sheriff Tompkins were an inherently coercive use of his official position to aid his candidacy, and therefore were prohibited by the conflict of interest law.”
In the Matter of Steven Tompkins
DOCKET NO. 15-0006
The State Ethics Commission (“Commission”) and Steven Tompkins (“Tompkins”) enter into this Disposition Agreement pursuant to Section 5 of the Commission’s Enforcement Procedures. This Agreement constitutes a consented-to final order enforceable in the Superior Court, pursuant to G.L. c. 268B, § 4(j).
On May 22, 2014, the Commission initiated, pursuant to G.L. c. 268B, § 4(a), a preliminary inquiry into possible violations of the conflict of interest law, G.L. c. 268A, by Tompkins. On June 18, 2015, the Commission concluded its inquiry and found reasonable cause to believe that Tompkins violated G.L. c. 268A, § 23(b)(2)(ii).
The Commission and Tompkins now agree to the following findings of fact and conclusions of law:
Findings of Fact
- In January 2013, Governor Deval Patrick appointed Tompkins Interim Suffolk County Sheriff.
- The Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department (“Sheriff’s Department”) is primarily responsible for the custody and control of sentenced inmates and pretrial detainees. The Sheriff’s Department oversees the Suffolk County Jail, the House of Correction, and the Suffolk County Community Corrections Center. Deputy Sheriffs serve process and the Sheriff’s Department officers occasionally work traffic details. The Sheriff’s Department does community outreach and creates partnerships with criminal justice agencies, community-based organizations, schools, community health agencies and faith communities.
- Tompkins ran for and won election as Sheriff in 2014.
- In 2013, more than one year before the election, Douglas Bennett (“Bennett”) announced that he was running against Tompkins for Sheriff. Bennett placed campaign signs at various street-level retail shops in Egleston Square in Roxbury which read, “Vote for Sheriff Bennett.”
- In August 2013, Tompkins went to approximately eight of the retail shops where Bennett had placed his signs, orally identified himself as Sheriff and showed his official identification to the proprietors. Tompkins asked the proprietor of each shop to take down Bennett’s campaign signs, and each proprietor complied with his request.
- Tompkins claims that he asked the proprietors to take down the Bennett campaign signs because, according to Tompkins, they incorrectly implied that Bennett was the present Suffolk County Sheriff.Conclusions of Law
- Section 23(b)(2)(ii) of G.L. c. 268A prohibits a state employee from, knowingly, or with reason to know, using or attempting to use his official position to secure for himself or others unwarranted privileges or exemptions which are of substantial value and which are not properly available to similarly situated individuals.
- As Interim Suffolk County Sheriff, Tompkins was a “state employee,” as that term is defined in G.L. c. 268A, § 1(q).
- By orally identifying himself as Sheriff, and showing the proprietors his official identification when he asked them to take down his opponent’s campaign signs, Tompkins knowingly, or with reason to know, used his official position as Sheriff to secure the removal of those signs.
- Having his opponent’s campaign signs removed from the retail shops in Egleston Square upon his request was a privilege which personally benefitted Tompkins as a candidate for election as Sheriff. Because no public official running for election is entitled by law to have an opponent’s campaign signs removed from local private businesses upon his or her request, this privilege was unwarranted and not properly available to similarly situated individuals.
- The posting of a candidate’s political campaign signs in places where they will be seen by the public, such as in retail shops as described above, is of “substantial value.”/ Likewise, the lack of an opponent’s campaign signs is a substantially valuable benefit to a candidate. Accordingly, the removal of his opponent’s campaign signs from the Egleston Square retail shops was for Tompkins an unwarranted privilege of substantial value that was not properly available to similarly situated individuals.
- Thus, by using his position as Sheriff to cause the Egleston Square retail shop proprietors to take down his opponent’s campaign signs, Tompkins knowingly, or with reason to know, used his official position to obtain an unwarranted privilege of substantial value for himself, which was not properly available to other similarly situated individuals, in violation of § 23(b)(2)(ii).ResolutionIn view of the foregoing violation of G.L. c. 268A by Tompkins, the Commission has determined that the public interest would be served by the disposition of this matter without further enforcement proceedings, upon the following terms and conditions agreed to by Tompkins:(1) that Tompkins pay to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, with such payment to be delivered to the Commission, the sum of Two Thousand Five Hundred Dollars ($2,500) as a civil penalty for violating G.L. c. 268A, § 23(b)(2)(ii); and
(2) that Tompkins waive all rights to contest, in this or any other administrative or judicial proceeding to which the Commission is or may be a party, the findings of fact, conclusions of law and terms and conditions contained in this Agreement.
By signing below, Steven Tompkins acknowledges that he has personally read this Disposition Agreement, that it is a public document, and that he agrees to all of the terms and conditions therein.
STATE ETHICS COMMISSION
Steven Tompkins Date
Karen L. Nober Date
/ Substantial value is $50 or more. See Ellis, 1999 SEC 930 (city councilor violated §23(b)(2) by coercing constituent to take down opponent’s campaign signs). As the Commission in Ellis observed:
A campaign sign advocating the election of a certain candidate posted in public view potentially increases the likelihood that that candidate will be elected. Similarly, the lack of such campaign signs backing the candidate’s opponent is of benefit to that candidate. Consequently, in the Commission’s view, such postings (or the prevention of such postings by an opponent) involve items of substantial intangible value within the meaning of §23(b)(2). As the Supreme Court said in In City of Ladue v. Gilleo, 114 S.Ct. 2038, 2045 (1994), as to residential signs in political campaigns:
[S]mall [political campaign] posters have maximum effect when they go up in the windows of homes, for this demonstrates that citizens of the district are supporting your candidate – an impact that money can’t buy. [fn. 12, p. 2045 citing D. Simpson, Winning Elections: A Handbook in Participatory Politics 87 (rev. ed. 1981).]
Similarly, in this matter, the campaign signs placed on the walls of small local businesses for public view also demonstrated that the citizens of the district supported Tompkins’ opponent for Sheriff.