Common Cause, a national watchdog organization that has long campaigned to strip politics of corporate influence, says special interest money pouring into the coffers of elected sheriffs around the country represents a conflict of interest and endangers inmates.

The findings are contained in a report released Tuesday titled “The Paid Jailer: How Sheriffs’ Campaign Dollars Shape Mass Incarceration.” The study is national in scope but takes particular aim at Massachusetts, where elected sheriffs received $2.6 million in what Common Cause described as “ethically conflicted donations.”

The report was co-authored by Communities for Sheriff Accountability, a coalition of prison reform advocates and researchers.

Construction, food services, prison health and other incarceration-specific businesses benefit from helping elect certain sheriffs, said researcher Kesha Morris Desir, the Census and Mass Incarceration Project Manager at Common Cause.

Researchers filed public records requests from a fraction of the country’s more than 3,000 sheriffs and combed through campaign finance data from 11 states to come to their conclusions. Most sheriffs’ departments declined to comment or provide information. Of those that did — about 3% of the total number of sheriffs throughout the United States — three areas stood out.

“Maryland, Orange County and Massachusetts were among the top offenders for receiving ethically conflicted donations, with Massachusetts being the highest,” said Morris Desir.

According to the report: “Massachusetts sheriffs received up to $2,686,129 in potentially conflicted donations across just 13 sheriffs’ campaigns, with sheriffs in these five counties being the top recipients: Suffolk County, $319,002; Bristol County, $324,870; Hampden County, $396,604; Worcester County, $504,516; and Plymouth County, $738,008.”

GBH reached out to Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins, who said he would respond to the report after he has had a chance to read it.

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgeson said he could not speak for others in the commonwealth, but said criticism of elected sheriffs for accepting campaign dollars from corporate donors was “ludicrous.” He argued that campaign donations to sheriffs was no more controversial than corporate donations to members of Congress.

“Does that mean that the pharmaceutical companies donating to a particular congressman suggest that congressman is involved in some kind of quid pro quo?” he asked rhetorically.

Hodgeson’s spokesperson, Jonathan Darling, in a statement to GBH News said: “The report alleges zero actual violations of Massachusetts campaign finance laws. The report is merely the opinion of a political organization thousands of miles away from Bristol County whose definition of ‘conflict of interest’ is different than actual law. This is likely the first of many political attacks to be lobbed against Sheriff Hodgson and the other Mass. sheriffs who are up for reelection this year.”

At a media briefing convened over Zoom, the authors of the study conceded there was nothing illegal about corporate donations to sheriffs’ campaigns but argued that accepting donations from the same companies that build prisons, feed and house inmates and tend to their medical needs was an inherent conflict of interest.

The authors cite the more than 30 people who have died in Bristol County Jail since the mid-2000s from substance withdrawal, suicide and other causes. Common Cause said those individuals and people currently incarcerated did not receive adequate health care, blaming a major donor to Hodgeson’s campaign.

Hodgeson is chided in the report for accepting more than $12,000 in donations from CPS Health Care, the medical contractor for the jail.

“Well, first of all, this company has gone over and above with us,” said Hodgeson in defense of CPS Health Care. “They purchased equipment that we've needed that helps us to enhance our medical unit. They've done things well beyond what they otherwise were required to do. And they're very conscientious.”

Hodgeson also disputed the amount of money he has received in campaign funding from CPS Health Care. “I think over the course of, I don't know, eight years, nine years, [they] have donated to my campaign a total of $3,250. I mean, that's eight years.”

Common Cause argues that whatever the increments, large or small, private companies have an undue influence on the way jails are run and the beneficiaries. That impact is not insignificant said Morris Desir: "CPS Healthcare, which is documented to be one of the worst prison and jail health care companies in the country, spent just about $20,000 on sheriffs' campaigns In Massachusetts. That paid off about 500-fold because from 2012 to 2021, they were awarded about $10 million.

Common Cause and Communities for Sheriff Accountability said “ethically conflicted donations" to sheriffs contributed to the system of mass incarceration.

“Sheriffs have this enormous power and they disproportionately use it to over-incarcerate Black and Latino folks,” said Max Rose, one of the authors of the study. “Private sector contributions are really influencing how they do that.”

The researchers recommend that Massachusetts and other states take a cue from New York and Connecticut, which impose strict guidelines on campaign donations to limit quid pro quo arrangements from "special interests."