Wyatt Emmerich: The most corrupt state in the nation?


Wyatt Emmerich



After pressure from traditional newspaper watchdogs, including the Northside Sun, the Legislature is finally considering a bit of ethics reform. 


A bill is being debated that would make state political candidates itemize their campaign credit card expenses. Don't hold your breath. 


I am reminded of the old saying, "I'm either against government corruption or want more opportunities to participate." The problem in Mississippi is that so many people have so many opportunities to participate. 


Mississippi is not a state. It's a club. And the club of Mississippi doesn't really want things changed. Too many people have the opportunity to participate. 


How bad is it? Just a couple of years ago, a national survey determined that Mississippi was the most corrupt state in the nation. 


Just last year, Chris Epps, the head of our prison system, was convicted for taking kickbacks that led to hundreds of millions in overbidding waste. The bribers were wiring money directly to Epps' mortgage company to pay for his beach home. That's pretty brazen. 


I recall a recent conversation with a representative of a New Orleans sewage contractor. They were hoping to bid on some of Jackson's half-a-billion dollars in EPA consent decree business. They went back to Louisiana with their tails between their legs. Jackson was way too corrupt for them. 


I could go on and on. We have reported so many cases of ethics violations I have lost count. Nobody cares. 


Just look at the most recent state elections. Both State Auditor Stacey Pickering and Attorney General Jim Hood were accused of using their campaign credit cards for personal expenses. These are the guys who are supposed to be the watchdogs. 


As Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins asked, "Who is watching the watchdogs?" Yet she got drubbed at the polls by Pickering. 


Republican Mike Hurst ran on a platform of cracking down on white-collar crime. Hurst, as an assistant U.S. attorney, was a key man in busting Epps. 


His opponent, incumbent Jim Hood, has been criticized relentlessly by the national media for his pay-to-play practices of handing out big legal jobs to campaign contributors. Hood drubbed Hurst at the polls. Nobody cares. 


We do indeed have a comprehensive state ethics statute. The statute is very broad and forbids any government official from benefiting financially from his public office. Problem is, the law has no teeth. The penalties are weak and require the initiative of the local district attorney or, you guessed it, the attorney general. 


Mississippi even has a state ethics commission headed by Jim Hood's brother Tom. Neither the ethics commission, nor the attorney general, nor the state auditor, nor the secretary of state, nor any local DAs have done much at all about corruption. It is rampant. Too many opportunities to participate. 


As the Clarion-Ledger admirably pointed out in a recent series of stories, politicians have been going to jail in surrounding states for what is common practice in Mississippi. Nobody cares. 


In Mississippi, campaign contributions are an accepted form of bribery and corruption. Politicians are allowed to build up as much campaign money as they can and spend it on themselves. When they retire, they just keep the money. It's like a big personal retirement war chest. 


Our corrupt state bidding practices dovetail perfectly with these campaign funds. In most states, private companies must bid on government jobs. Government agencies issue bid specifications. Companies submit sealed bids. The winner is the "lowest responsive bidder." 


"Lowest responsive" means two things. "Lowest" means the least expensive cost to the taxpayers. "Responsive" means the bid must meet the specifications of the job. These specifications are published and cannot be changed later to favor one bidder over another. This keeps the bidding process above board, public and honest. It also protects taxpayers from getting ripped off. 


But that's not how we do it in Mississippi. Our state bidding laws call for the "lowest and best" bid. The key is the word "best," which opens the floodgates to cronyism. What is "best"? It can mean anything. 


For too many politicians who can influence multi-million-dollar contracts, the "best" bid is the one that helps grow their campaign slush fund. 


This sets the stage for a perfect storm of corruption. Politicians can award lucrative government contracts to their political contributors. This is exactly what the Northside Sun exposed recently in the $13 million sewage disposal contract for the city of Jackson. 


In this case, the Jackson public works department, pushed by Mayor Tony Yarber, awarded the contract to Socrates Garrett, his campaign chairman, even though Garrett's bid was more than a million dollars higher. Garrett had been organizing fund-raisers for Yarber from contractors all over the South. These contributions were not reported, in violation of our campaign laws, none of which are enforced. 


I don't mean to pick on Mayor Yarber or even Socrates Garrett because they are just doing business the way it's done in Mississippi. 


Now Continental Tire is about to build a $1.5 billion plant in Hinds, using state subsidies pushed by the governor and the Legislature. So many contracts to be let. It will be flush times for politicians. Their campaign war chests will be brimming over with cash. 


Wyatt Emmerich is the editor and publisher of The Northside Sun, a weekly newspaper in Jackson. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]



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