By Dusty Christensen
NORTHAMPTON — A third-party investigation has found that, ahead of the Democratic primary election last fall, a former top official at the Hampshire County jail took down the campaign signs of a candidate challenging incumbent Sheriff Patrick Cahillane and surveilled a subordinate’s home because of his support for another challenger.
A report that the Hampshire County Sheriff’s Office released Thursday concluded that former deputy superintendent Barbara Marean “engaged in political activity” during work hours and using a publicly owned car — a violation of the state’s conflict-of-interest law. That activity included driving by and photographing a jail employee’s lawn sign in support of candidate Caitlin Sepeda and taking down yard signs supporting Sepeda and another candidate, Yvonne Gittelson.
Daily Hampshire Gazette reporter Brian Steele first reported the allegations against Marean last August, when a jail employee told Southampton police that a woman pulled up to his house in a black SUV and took pictures of his yard. The license plate on that car matched the state-owned vehicle parked in Marean’s parking spot at the jail. Soon after that reporting, Marean, who had worked at the jail for some three decades, resigned her position.
Cahillane immediately said he would commission an investigation, which he released late Thursday afternoon — around eight months later — in a Facebook post, buried under several paragraphs giving an update on COVID-19 cases in the jail. Cahillane’s office redacted large portions of the report, saying that it did so “to protect the privacy of witnesses and the security procedures of the Hampshire Sheriff’s Office.” However, because of the poor quality of the redactions, many of the redacted sections are still visible.
Reached by telephone Monday afternoon, Marean said she hadn’t seen the report and declined to comment. Cahillane and his office’s spokesperson did not return voicemails and email messages requesting comment.
Cahillane, who oversees the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction, was first elected to his position in 2016, when 32-year incumbent sheriff Robert Garvey endorsed him as his successor. Last November, Cahillane coasted to victory in the general election to secure another six-year term.
However, Cahillane had faced stiff competition from two former jail employees in the Democratic primary in September: Gittelson, who was the jail’s education coordinator from 2017 to 2021, and Sepeda, who was a corrections nurse in the jail for nine years until 2021.
In the primary election, Cahillane won that primary election with 48.1% of the vote. Gittelson came in second with 26.6% and Sepeda came in third with 25.3%. During a bruising primary campaign, both women denounced Cahillane’s leadership — criticisms that grew sharper after news broke of Marean’s actions.
“Upper administration feels like they are above the law,” Sepeda said during an Aug. 25 debate in reaction to the Gazette’s reporting. “They rule with fear and an iron fist. Scare tactics and blatant acts of intimidation of staff in the name of loyalty rule supreme.”
Reached by telephone Monday afternoon, Sepeda said she was glad that the report is now public. However, she said she was disappointed that the only recommendation that investigator Daniel Bennett of the firm Comprehensive Investigations and Consulting made was to prohibit Marean from working at the sheriff’s office again.
“I think there was a theme running through it about a lack of more substantial and focused ethics training,” she said.
Sepeda said that some of the interviews with jail employees contained within the report demonstrate a culture she said pervades government agencies run by elected officials who are concerned about maintaining their job. Most voters don’t know much, if anything, about their local sheriffs, who she said rely on their employees to help them get reelected. Sheriff’s office employees often make up a large portion of a sheriff’s political fundraising and support.
“Do they rule by fear? Do they rule by good deeds? Do they rule through fairness?” Sepeda said. “It depends on the individual sheriff, but it certainly behooves the sheriff to keep his employees on his ‘team’ because they’re the ones who are going to get him elected every six years.”
In the investigative report into Marean’s actions, investigators said that Marean drove to the house of jail Lt. Bryan Luszczki looking for evidence that he “was not on Sheriff Cahillane’s team,” as she suspected him of not preparing for an upcoming state audit in an effort to make the sheriff look bad.
“I’m telling you, [redacted] is tanking the audit and he’s not on our team,” the report quotes her telling another jail employee. Another jail employee — whose name is not visible underneath redactions — is quoted in the report calling that allegation a “fairy tale” because, they said, the audit didn’t even begin until after the primary election.
The report says that there was no evidence that Cahillane pressured anybody to support his candidacy or volunteer for his campaign, and that Marean said she acted on her own volition.
Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.
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