Cousins stepping down at end of term

Staff file photo Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins 

Essex County Sheriff Frank G. Cousins Jr. announced Tuesday he will not seek reelection when his current term ends in January, completing a groundbreaking 20-year run as the first African-American to serve as sheriff in Massachusetts.

Cousins, 57, a Republican from Newburyport, said “it is time” to move on, citing his accomplishments and the fact that his son will be starting high school.

While dogged with several allegations of wrongdoing in the last couple of years, including one that resulted in a $10,000 fine, Cousins said his accomplishments speak for themselves and insisted he could win again if he chose to run.

“If I wanted to run this fall, we’d run and win and feel good about it,” Cousins said. “I made my decision. I don’t have any opponents, except one disgruntled employee who talks about running.”

Former jail deputy superintendent Jerry Robito plans to run as a Democrat.

Cousins lauded his employees, whom he broke the news to Tuesday morning. “I have great employees, great correction officers, great sergeants, great people who want to turn corrections into a profession,” he said.

He pointed to Middleton Jail’s new detoxification center, which opened Dec. 7 to combat drug addiction among inmates, as a top accomplishment that addresses a critical public health and public safety issue.

“Treatment is important,” he said. “I’m a pretty conservative guy. I realize when people do bad things they deserve to be locked up. But in a county system, people are going back into the community and we focus on stepping them down and helping them be a better person.”

Cousins said he is proud of “restoring public trust to the office of sheriff” and trying to reduce recidivism. He also established a regional 911 dispatch system, which has encountered a number of challenges in its infancy.

“My legacy is very simple. My mother used to say to me if you can help a person every day you’ve had a good day,” he said.

At this time, he said he has no immediate plans to run for another public office and take another job.

Cousins teaches at Merrimack College and also serves on the Provident Bank board, he said.

The first African-American sheriff in Massachusetts, Cousins, appointed in 1996 to finish his predecessor’s term, said he hoped his career was an inspiration to other young people.

“A lot of the people I grew up with are struggling, so I’m grateful to the people of Newburyport, who let me be their state rep, the first person of color to hold multiple offices in the Commonwealth, to set an example for young black boys and young Hispanic boys around the Commonwealth,” he said. “That is important to me.”

In 2013, Cousins fended off accusations that certain employees could use up sick time at 100 percent pay before they retire, rather than cashing out their time upon retirement at 20 percent, per department policy.

State elections officials in 2011 fined Cousins $10,000 for dozens of separate violations involving the money orders and corporate contributions during his 2010 re-election campaign, as well as an unspecified number of violations for accepting cash from unnamed donors.

Cousins on Tuesday dismissed those allegations, saying, “A couple employees want to complain, that’s what it is.”

He served as state representative in Newburyport before Gov. William Weld in 1996 appointed him Essex County Sheriff to finish the term of Charles Reardon, who had resigned after pleading guilty to corruption charges. Cousins won election to a full six-year term in 1998.

As county sheriff, he oversees 600 employees and about 2,000 inmates.

“Right, wrong or indifferent, it’s been a big responsibility,” Cousins said.

In the past, Cousins has been eyed for other positions, including leading the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety and Security and higher political offices.

According to the state’s open checkbook website, Cousins earned $157,544 in 2015.

Follow Douglas Moser on Twitter @EagleEyeMoser.