February 14, 2015 6:09:07 PM
OXFORD -- In the aftermath of prison kickback arrests, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant is keeping his pledge to seek tighter controls.
Two bills passed the Senate unanimously last week, wining immediate praise from Bryant. One would remove leasing prison farmland from Mississippi Department of Corrections control and the other would move the Inmate Welfare Fund (proceeds from canteen sales) away from MDOC and to the state treasurer. Both were under the guidance of Sen. Sean Tindell, R-Gulfport.
Also alive in the Legislature after the initial round of deadlines are three bills -- two in the Senate and one in the House -- that would impose more accountability for no-bid and single-source contracts.
Christopher Epps and Cecil McCrory were indicted on about 50 federal kickback and bribery counts involving about $1 million in November.
Epps was a 20-year MDOC employee before being named commissioner in 2002. McCrory is a Rankin County businessman who served eight years (1988-1996) in the state House of Representatives.
Both men have entered pleas of innocent and trials are pending.
The charges sting in lots of ways.
Epps, who resigned immediately before the indictments were made public, was a popular figure in the corrections world, having served as president of the American Corrections Association. He was quoted in TIME magazine and on the "CBS Evening News" as an expert. He was seen as a reformer in a prison system being sued over inhumane conditions and one for which the Legislature grapples with surging costs year after year.
For him to be accused as a calculating thief -- engaging in wholesale banditry for seven years while managing the incarceration of others for the same crimes -- made Mississippi out in the national eye to be, again, a backwater where public corruption is as common as cornbread.
In Rankin County, McCrory was a member of the local school board, a position he also resigned before being taken into custody. So a prison "leader" and an education "leader" face charges of robbing the public till.
Epps was tapped for the top job by former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, retained through the two terms of Haley Barbour and, most recently, by Bryant. It never looks good for the home team when an appointee is on TV doing a perp walk. It must have really miffed Bryant, a former deputy sheriff and state auditor of public accounts.
As auditor, Gov. Bryant was tasked for eight years with monitoring the spending practices of state and county entities. After the arrests, he took executive actions and called on the Legislature to do its part.
Big changes are in two Senate bills (2400 and 2553) and one House bill (825) that were sent to the Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency committees in both chambers. The bills list the committee chairs (Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo and Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn) as authors, which augurs well for their success. They call forward Sections 25-9-120 and 31-7-13 and total 370 typewritten pages overall.
Rather than get down in the weeds, let's just say this: The accusations against Epps and McCrory would indicate too much public money was being spent with too little (or no) checks and balances.
A common practice in public purchases is to declare a seller of goods and services a "single source." It's often true. It also avoids taking bids.
Also ripe for abuse are other no-bid and consulting contracts that can be awarded for thousands and even millions of dollars on nothing more than the desire of a public official to make a deal. This power gives a state agency head more leeway and less accountability than the King of Prussia.
The legislation inserts more backstops, hoops and controls. The process is changed so that more eyes outside an agency are on each step during and after. "Silos" of control are broken up.
So a question arises: If these reforms were passed long, long ago, would we be living in a state without bribery or kickbacks today?
And here's the answer: Of course not.
A person or people intent on stealing, a person willing to betray the public trust will find a way. It doesn't matter whether the "don't steal" law is 10 pages long or 10,000.
So why bother?
Just as it helps a bank to have a more substantial vault, it helps the public to have mechanisms designed to detect and perhaps thwart incidents or patterns of theft.
Epps and McCrory will have their day in court, eventually. In the meantime, the governor is doing what he said needed doing. That's a good thing.
Charlie Mitchell is an assistant dean of journalism at the University of Mississippi. Write to him at Box 1 University, MS, or [email protected]
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