For Vermont's Sheriffs, Policing Is a Lucrative Business | Crime | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice
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For Vermont's Sheriffs, Policing Is a Lucrative Business 

click to enlarge LUKE EASTMAN
  • Luke Eastman

When Sam Hill became Washington County sheriff in 2004, it took some time for the municipal cop to adjust to the quirks of his new office.

"In Barre City, when someone asked if we could help, we just normally helped," he recalled. "When I came here and someone asked for help, I would have to ask, 'Who's gonna pay for that?'"

Though it may sound backward for a law enforcement official to put the bottom line first, it's a common, state-sanctioned practice among Vermont's 14 sheriffs. They are public servants, but they also preside over quasi-private enterprises.

Elected by residents of each county, sheriffs receive taxpayer dollars to provide certain state-mandated law enforcement services. Most of their revenue, however, comes from contracts they sign with individual state agencies, towns, schools, courts, construction companies, malls and other entities.

"I had to learn quickly how to be a businessman," said Hill, an avuncular man with glasses and a wisp of gray in his hair.

Many of Vermont's sheriffs embrace their entrepreneurial freedom. They make the case that it saves taxpayers money because the profits they earn from extra gigs subsidize their state work.

But sheriffs also have a financial interest in this unique system. State law allows them to personally pocket a portion of the revenue they collect, which has allowed some sheriffs to almost double their base salary. Last year, Lamoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux Jr. earned $67,951 from outside contracts, in addition to his $77,672 state salary — totaling $145,623, according to records obtained by Seven Days.

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Those documents — including budgets, contracts, salary figures and personnel lists from every sheriff in the state — shed light on a county law enforcement system that is little understood by residents and lawmakers alike. The records suggest that Vermont's largely autonomous sheriff's departments lack oversight and are vulnerable to self-dealing, double-dipping and nepotism.

Though state officials are barred from hiring relatives, these county lawmen — all 14 of whom are, in fact, men — often keep it in the family. Seven Days found that 11 incumbent sheriffs have employed relatives at some point in their tenure.

And while each department must undergo an outside audit every two years, problems uncovered during these reviews sometimes go uncorrected for years.

"There's very little transparency in the operation of the departments," said Rep. Mary Hooper (D-Montpelier), who hastened to add, "They do very, very important work."

"It's a system that does not breed accountability," said Robert Appel, an attorney and former director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission. "Last I knew, there were few, if any, external controls."

No-Man's-Land

The original sheriffs, known as "shire reeves" in medieval England, were keepers of the peace, appointed by the king and charged with collecting taxes and investigating crimes. In the late 18th century, Vermont's framers enshrined the position in its constitution but did not define its powers.

Vermont sheriffs, who are elected to four-year terms and aren't required to be certified law enforcement officers, used to oversee the county jails. Their role evolved after the state established a regional prison system in 1969. Instead of walking inmates across the street to the courthouse, sheriffs began chauffeuring them from prison to court.

"Back then, deputies bought all their own equipment, uniforms, weapons," said Michael Chamberlain, who was first elected Windsor County sheriff in 1978. "There was no money." He ferried prisoners in the family car, a dark green Ford sedan.

Unlike many states, which feature powerful county governments with large budgets, Vermont's is "a no-man's-land," according to Marcoux. The only other county officials are state's attorneys, assistant judges, probate judges and high bailiffs.

The state's counties do have a small budget, approved each year by two assistant judges, but they typically allocate only $150,000 to $500,000 to sheriffs. Though sheriffs are elected and partially funded by counties, their only legal obligations are to the state, which mandates that they transport prisoners and those with mental illnesses and serve legal papers, such as eviction notices and court summons.

The state, in turn, appropriates about $4.5 million for salaries and benefits for the sheriffs and 25 deputies. The latter positions are divvied up among the departments and are responsible for transporting those in state custody. Sheriffs' salaries are set by state law each year. Currently, they range from $74,027 for those without full law enforcement credentials to $87,048, for the Chittenden County sheriff.

Those who know how to shake the tree, however, make significantly more.

Side Hustle

click to enlarge Sheriff Trevor Colby - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • Sheriff Trevor Colby

To supplement their public funding — and their own salaries — sheriffs often go looking for outside business.

"If it wasn't for the contracts, I know I would have a tough time trying to maintain the operation," Chamberlain said. "I'm sure all the sheriffs would."

These side hustles are a longstanding tradition. Early in his career, the Windsor County sheriff recalled moonlighting as a dancehall security guard. "You might pick up a job for three to four dollars an hour," he said. "The owner would pay you at the end of the night, often in cash."

The practice, formalized in a 1978 law, has since grown more complex.

Chamberlain's department had 58 contracts in fiscal year 2017. Its clients included towns that pay for patrol services, hauling companies in need of wide-load escorts and construction companies looking for traffic control. Some contracts establish an hourly rate. Some set a cap on total payment.

In a number of cases, the state itself is the customer, commissioning services above and beyond what's expected from its annual appropriation. The Department of Mental Health paid Chamberlain's department $217,736 in 2017, most of which went to "sit watches," which entail staying at the hospital bedside of mental health patients.

Sheriffs also seek out grants and make money through methods that don't require a contract, such as charging for fingerprinting services.

"Some people are building businesses," said Essex County Sheriff Trevor Colby. "I'm a horrible administrator," he noted, unabashedly, as he struggled to pull up budget figures on a computer in his Guildhall office.

Colby, who presides over Vermont's least populous county, also brings in the least revenue from contracts and other sources: about $261,800. He has 11 employees, only three of whom work full time.

The Northeast Kingdom native chooses to spend much of his time patrolling his bucolic 675-square-mile district. Climbing into his hulking white truck, equipped with a waterproof vault stocked with guns, ammunition and first-aid materials, he explained that the Department of Public Safety gives him a $30,000 grant to police the region, which is so remote it can take Vermont State Police more than an hour to respond.

"I'm not making money, but I'm not losing money," he said of the arrangement.

Because sheriffs have wide latitude to shape their departments as they see fit, the size of their operations doesn't necessarily correspond to the size of their jurisdictions. Lamoille County has the third-smallest population but brings in more revenue than any other department: $3.1 million in 2017. Its sheriff, Marcoux, has pushed the bounds of what such offices are expected to do.

"I'm an ideas guy," said Marcoux, whose law enforcement career includes five years of police work for the U.S embassy in Port au Prince, Haiti.

Appointed in 2001 by governor Howard Dean, Marcoux accepted the post with some reluctance. "Quite frankly, my concern with taking the job initially was lack of respect among the law enforcement community for sheriffs in general," he said.

"I made up my mind. If I'm gonna do this job, I'm not gonna be looked down upon," he said.

Marcoux, a media-savvy, politically shrewd businessman, has developed programs with the state to transport and supervise mental health patients and take back illicit drugs.

His latest idea: purchase a Catholic church and parish hall down the road from his Hyde Park office to house a satellite police academy.

Marcoux, who now employs 47 people, about 25 of whom work full time, said he's pursued these projects to fill a void in his community, not enrich himself or his department.

In many cases, he is able to do both.

A Piece of the Action

click to enlarge Sheriff Roger Marcoux - FILE: STEFAN HARD
  • File: Stefan Hard
  • Sheriff Roger Marcoux

Sheriffs are well compensated for this work, thanks to a highly unusual state law that allows them to keep up to 5 percent of their departments' contract revenue.

"Somehow, the legislature came to see the wisdom of giving them this special status," said Rep. Bill Lippert (D-Hinesburg).

Several former lawmakers recalled that the 1992 provision was, in fact, an attempt to curtail sheriffs' compensation, which previously had been unlimited. "It was pretty much the Wild West before that," said Vince Illuzzi, a senator at the time who now serves as Essex County state's attorney.

Hill, of Washington County, recalled telling sheriffs from other states about the 5 percent provision at a National Sheriffs' Association event. "They all thought I was a complete criminal!" he said.

Vermont Human Resources Commissioner Beth Fastiggi said she was "unaware of any other arrangement" in state government allowing public servants to take a cut of their earnings.

Lippert wants to know how much sheriffs make in addition to their state salaries, but, he said, "I have for quite some time been fascinated that no one appears to have those numbers."

At his urging, Rep. Maida Townsend (D-South Burlington) said the House Government Operations Committee, which she chairs, has promised to do a "deep dive" next year into "the entire monetary package that supports the work of the sheriff's office."

Seven Days obtained the fiscal year 2017 salary information through its public records requests.

Sheriffs have different philosophies about what they're entitled to, and why.

Hill, whose Washington County office brought in roughly $564,400 in contract revenue, only took home $12,830 — approximately 2 percent. "The money is more valuable here with the department," he explained, noting that while his office generated $1.5 million in total revenue, including noncontract sources, it only made $33,721 in profit.

Why accept any additional compensation, then? "I take a little bit because there is a lot of extra managing [and] stress [and] work jockeying to get people to work the details."

Hill also noted that he never takes a cut from state contracts, though the practice is legal. "I wouldn't feel right ... Each sheriff is different. We all have to live with ourselves." The additional income, together with his $77,672 state salary, meant he made $90,502 in 2017, along with healthcare and retirement benefits totaling $30,912.

Chamberlain, of Windsor County, said he gave himself the full 5 percent of every contract, for a total of $67,325 in additional income, because his office is in good financial shape. "If my department needs the money to operate [in the future], the department is gonna come first. Mike Chamberlain is gonna come in second." He made $144,997 in total and received $36,275 in benefits.

Marcoux, the Lamoille County sheriff, kept $67,951 in contract revenue, though he was entitled to $120,562, had he accepted the full 5 percent. His combined earnings amounted to $145,623, plus $42,676 in benefits.

"I know mine is significant if you look at it," he said. "But I kind of keep an eye on what people at the senior level of the Vermont State Police are getting, and I'm less than some of their top people."

In fact, the head of the State Police, Col. Matthew Birmingham, makes $144,026, according to state records.

Orange County Sheriff Bill Bohnyak forgoes the 5 percent entirely but supplements his state salary in another way. "The only money I take from my office is when I work overtime," he explained. The sheriff estimated that he logs 60 hours a week performing his state duties. Amid that grueling schedule, he still found time to work 555 hours in 2017 — another 11 hours per week — providing contracted services at a rate of $50 an hour. The additional $27,117 brought his total income to $104,789, plus $31,251 in benefits.

Franklin County Sheriff Robert Norris made more additional income than any other sheriff: $70,836. He reported making $17,914 through the 5 percent provision, plus $52,922 working overtime. His total salary was $148,508, plus $36,206 in benefits.

Lawmakers have periodically raised concerns that state-funded sheriffs and deputies are double-dipping by doing contract work on state time, though sheriffs insist they wouldn't allow such a practice. "I challenge people that bring that up," Marcoux said. "How do you know that? Can you offer any proof?"

Norris couldn't say how many hours he devotes to the duties the state funds: "As sheriffs, we don't do a time sheet." But he argued that an exact accounting wasn't necessary. "Those duties are fulfilled," Norris asserted. "I'm able to balance what I do."

"Can I ask you a question?" he said to a reporter. "Why would anyone make an issue of this?"

Franklin County is one of several sheriff's departments that get federal money to patrol the Canadian border as part of Operation Stonegarden, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security program.

Norris himself spent 300 hours doing this work in 2017, making $39.30 an hour. "It's nothing more than another set of eyes and ears along the border," he said, explaining that he and his deputies help "control the influx of drugs, guns, criminal activity, transnational criminal activity."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont has raised concerns about the program, arguing that local law enforcement should play no role in federal immigration matters.

The state passed legislation last year — in response to concerns about a crackdown on undocumented immigrants under President Donald Trump — that bars state and local police from enforcing federal immigration laws. But the law does nothing to restrict programs such as Operation Stonegarden. While Norris insisted that he personally doesn't enforce immigration laws, he will refer cases to the feds.

"If they entered the country illegally, I'll contact Border Patrol," he said.

Breaking Even

By forcing sheriffs to chase profits, the state seems to be inadvertently encouraging them to prioritize private contracts, which tend to be more lucrative, over those with state and local governments.

In 2016, Sheriff Keith Clark of Windham dropped a contract to provide court security because, he said, "I was losing a lot of money."

"It's not that I didn't want to do it. I just could not find a way to do it in a way we could afford," Clark continued. "I would have been happy to just break even."

The courts in Windham County now rely on a private security firm. Without substantial rate increases, Orange County's Bohnyak, who is president of the Vermont Sheriffs' Association, said it's likely that other departments will follow Windham's lead.

The most profitable gigs happen to be among the easiest: Some construction companies pay sheriffs or their deputies $70 an hour to sit in their cruisers, blue lights flashing, to slow traffic.

"We all want 'em," Hill said of the construction contracts.

"We look forward to the summer months," Clark concurred. "Construction season is where we're able to set aside some money for the rest of the year."

But, he observed, "It shouldn't be that way."

"I don't think there's a sheriff that wouldn't say, 'I would be happy if the state or the county fully funded the department so I don't have to do all these other things to make ends meet,'" said Hill, who pointed out that the government doesn't pay for their cruisers, uniforms and other equipment.

While sheriffs sometimes complain about working with the state, they've also resisted severing ties.

Lawmakers have considered relieving sheriffs of one their key state duties: transporting prisoners. Hooper, the Montpelier state rep, raised the topic during the last legislative session. She said there have been "issues" with getting inmates to court on time — or at all — because "sometimes sheriffs aren't available to do the transports." Noting that the state Department of Corrections also transports prisoners, Hooper asked, "Why do we have them and another system?"

Sheriffs were quick to protest, suggesting they're the state's cheapest, most-skilled option.

Hooper settled for the creation of a committee that is studying the issue and will make recommendations by November 1. Wholesale change is unlikely, however.

Casey LaFrance, a professor at Western Illinois University who studies county government, noted that sheriffs have significant political sway.

The sheriff, he said, "has a lot of ties to the county and a knowledge of its inner political workings." If you're a politician, "you ingratiate yourself with your fellow elected officials so it's less likely they'll have to say anything bad about you."

Home Turf

Many Vermont towns that aren't large enough to support a police force of their own choose to contract with state, county or municipal cops to provide patrols.

But for some sheriffs, towns pay barely enough to make it worth their while.

"There are times I've thought of just completely getting out of the town contract business," said Clark of Windham County. "I'm not getting ahead financially."

Towns, in turn, have periodically complained that sheriffs are unresponsive. Sheriffs contend that town officials and residents misunderstand the arrangement. Often, they're only paid to patrol a town for a few hours each week.

Other partnerships are mutually beneficial. In 2017, the town of Bridgewater paid the Windsor County Sheriff's Department $219,403 to patrol 76 hours a week. According to a recent Vermont Public Radio investigation, the sheriff's department wrote at least 2,381 tickets that year — more than were written in any other town. The revenue from those tickets, which is shared by the town and state, more than offset the cost of the enforcement services, according to Chamberlain, who emphasized that sheriffs "do not get one penny" of the traffic fines.

That may be technically true, but he undoubtedly benefits from the arrangement. Five percent of his Bridgewater contract amounts to nearly $11,000, which Chamberlain himself pockets.

From time to time, sheriffs have clashed with other law enforcement agencies over municipal contracts.

Sheriff Norris of Franklin County unsuccessfully sued the St. Albans City Police Department in 2011 after the latter won a bid to police neighboring St. Albans Town.

There has also been grumbling among some sheriffs that the Vermont State Police is invading their turf when it comes to municipal contracts. In 2017, the State Police had 23 agreements with individual towns; earlier this year, it signed another with Waterbury.

Sheriffs have one distinct advantage: They live and, in some cases, grew up in the areas they police.

While out patrolling the road in his truck on a sunny afternoon last month, Colby, of Essex County, waved, or waved back, to nearly every car and tractor he passed.

"I tell all my deputies, 'You wave to everybody,'" he said, explaining that friendly relations often generate tips.

Colby kept up a running commentary as he drove, offering a tour of violence and tragedy.

"We've had some kids drown here."

"This house had all the copper cut out of it."

"Meth house."

"Marijuana grow."

"Sex offense."

"Burglary."

"A woman pinned me to a wall, drunker than a skunk."

Family Affair

When Colby reached Lunenburg, the descriptions changed. He pointed out his cousin's store, an aunt's house, the church where he got married, the blue-shingled house where he grew up, his brother's house and at least eight other properties associated with family members. The sheriff recalled a Christmas party, at which he confronted a cousin who was renting property to a cocaine dealer. His cousin's response: "He pays on time."

When Colby pulled into his own driveway, a man in jeans, a worn T-shirt and orange baseball cap came over to the truck window. It was his father and predecessor, former Essex County sheriff Amos Colby, who held the post from 1986 to 2006.

The younger Colby recalled answering phone calls for his father as a teenager and watching him head out to the scene of a crime wearing coveralls, with a shotgun over his shoulder. "My mom was essentially running the office for him," he noted.

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When Amos retired, he drew scrutiny for giving out nearly $25,000 in bonuses, including $2,500 to his wife and $1,500 to his daughter, both of whom were on the department's payroll, according to the Associated Press. The state auditor later determined that the payments were legal.

When Colby took office in 2011, he hired his dad, who worked for him until 2014.

Chittenden County Sheriff Kevin McLaughlin also got his start working for his father, sheriff Earle McLaughlin. The younger McLaughlin actually grew up in the county jail, helping his mother cook meals and do laundry for the inmates.

When Kevin became sheriff in 1987, he also became the boss of his father, mother and brother — all of whom had worked under Ronald Duell, who served as sheriff for a decade between Earle and Kevin McLaughlin.

Sheriff's departments have modernized since then but remain a family affair.

To prevent nepotism, the state forbids — with occasional exceptions — employing relatives within "the same department, institution or organizational unit." But sheriffs, as county officials, aren't bound by this rule.

Eleven incumbent sheriffs have employed parents, siblings, children and other family members.

Norris, who isn't running for reelection, said he employed his son in the Franklin County Sheriff's Department years ago "for one or two months." But, he said, "I wouldn't do it again." Why not? "So people don't accuse me of nepotism."

Among other sheriffs, Norris noted, "it seems to be quite commonplace."

Chamberlain, the Windsor County sheriff, employs his wife, whom he describes as "kind of a do-it-all person."

Grand Isle County Sheriff Ray Allen employs two sons as deputies. He was previously the chief deputy under his wife, Connie; when she died by suicide in 2011, then-governor Peter Shumlin appointed Ray to replace her.

Marcoux, of Lamoille County, employs a nephew and a brother. The latter is a retired state trooper whom Marcoux described as "one of the hardest working guys, no matter what his last name is." The sheriff acknowledged ambivalence about the arrangement: "It was something that I really had to think about."

But, he continued, "Do you discriminate against him because of his last name or do you let his record [stand for itself]?"

Bohnyak's son worked for him in the Orange County department until eight months ago, when the son left for a job with the Vermont State Police. Bohnyak, too, said he initially had reservations, but the other supervisors in his department encouraged him. "I'm like, 'Well, it's my own son,' and they were like, 'Just hire him,'" the sheriff recalled.

Under the Radar

Historically, Vermont's sheriffs don't have a sterling track record when it comes to handling money. Several current officeholders inherited, by their own assessment, financial messes, and at least two of them replaced sheriffs who had been convicted of crimes.

According to Hill, State Police escorted his predecessor, Donald Edson, out of the Washington County office after he obtained a $25,000 loan from Marcoux's department and then deposited the same amount in his sister's bank account.

In 2006, then-state auditor Randy Brock, acting on a tip, uncovered evidence that Sheila Prue, the Windham County sheriff, was spending department money on family expenses, including cell phones, pet supplies, underwear and a banjo. Prue ultimately pleaded guilty to embezzlement and stepped down.

Clark, who began his term in 2007, recalled, "When I walked in there, there was about $110,000 bills that had gone unpaid because there was just no money left here."

No single entity is charged with overseeing sheriffs. State law does require that they provide information about their contract revenue to the assistant judges each year and that they undergo an audit every two years, conducted by a private firm hired by the state auditor. But, as Brock noted, "A lot of things can go south in two years."

These periodic financial reviews don't tell the full story. According to Susan Mesner, the deputy state auditor, they "do not represent a complete accounting of the sheriff's departments' revenues and expenses."

The auditor's office publishes the reports on its website, but it's not clear anyone's paying attention. In some cases, serious financial problems persist for years with no apparent repercussions.

The Essex County department has lacked sufficient internal controls since 2010, according to the reports. That, the state auditor's office noted, "increases the risk that erroneous or fraudulent transactions could occur."

"I don't consider it an issue," said Sheriff Colby, who handles the finances with help from a part-time office administrator.

Discrepancies in the Orange County department's fiscal year 2015 finances prevented the auditors from completing their review. Sheriff Bohnyak, who attributed the errors to the fact that his bookkeeper was undergoing cancer treatments at the time, hired an outside contractor to clean up the books. "It's gonna be done right," he assured.

Lippert wants to see more scrutiny. "I think it's entirely reasonable that the citizens of each county should have a better [and more] transparent understanding of the finances of their sheriff's department, and I do not believe that is currently happening," he said.

The Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs is in charge of doling out the state appropriation, but unlike other state departments run by commissioners who report to the governor, this one is led by an executive director, appointed by the sheriffs and state's attorneys themselves.

"I'm here until ... they decide they no longer need my services," said the current ED, former Senate president pro tempore John Campbell. "I'm their employee, if you will."

That makes him essentially powerless. "Even if I had issued a policy change, for all intents and purposes, they could just say, 'No, we're not going to listen to you,'" Campbell said.

Ultimately, it's up to the voters.

"I feel that the people are gonna speak every four years if I'm not doing the job," Marcoux said.

He hasn't faced a challenger since his first election in 2002.

When sheriffs leave office, it's generally of their own volition and after they've groomed a replacement.

"Most sheriffs do handpick their successors," according to LaFrance, the Western Illinois University professor. "Being selected as chief deputy is basically a guarantee you'll become the next sheriff as long as you don't fuck it up."

Though they haven't garnered much coverage, there have been a handful of contested elections this year.

Incumbents prevailed in four of five competitive primaries in August; in the fifth, Peter Newton, a deputy endorsed by his outgoing boss, Addison County Sheriff Donald Keeler, won. Of the six contested sheriff races in November's general election, four are challenges against the sitting sheriff.

The obscurity of the office would seem to benefit incumbents, but some current officeholders, frustrated at being misunderstood, say they'd welcome more attention. "Even after all these years, there's confusion about how the sheriffs operate," said Windham County Sheriff Clark.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Sheriff, Inc."

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About The Author

Alicia Freese

Alicia Freese

Bio:
Alicia Freese is a Seven Days staff writer.

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