Money from the Moss Point Police Benefit Fund was intended for community events such as the National Night Out Against Crime, but records the Sun Herald requested showed two former city employees have been spending it at restaurants, nail spas, a liquor store, a beauty-supply business, retail shops and department stores.
In response to an Oct. 11 public-records request, the city provided the Sun Herald with records that show employees spent more than $7,800 for 23 months in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Seven months’ worth of records from those years were not available.
The city had receipts for only a few of the purchases.
After providing the first set of records, city attorney Amy St. Pé told the Sun Herald the account is private, and the city had no obligation to release the records for those seven months. She said police fund records are now in the hands of investigators with the State Auditor’s Office and the city doesn’t have access to them.
So when was the account set up?
The city did not authorize the account and therefore does not know who set the account up, when the account was set up, or what it was supposed to be used for.
Amy St. Pé, Moss Point city attorney
“The city did not authorize the account and therefore does not know who set the account up, when the account was set up, or what it was supposed to be used for,” St. Pé said.
Seven days after the records request was made, Mayor Billy Broomfield confirmed the State Auditor’s Office is investigating potential fraud involving money from the Police Department Benefit Fund.
The Auditor’s Office also is looking into possible fraud in the city’s Utilities Department.
A nonprofit account?
The Sun Herald checked with the Secretary of State’s Office and learned the Moss Point Police Department Benefit Fund has never been registered as a nonprofit account. The account, however, relied on donations from the public, including from local churches and businesses.
According to city officials, the money was supposed to be used to buy items for city events such as Harvest Fest, Trunk-or-Treat and Christmas festivities on the water. The Police Department typically used the money to buy door prizes and to cover the costs of food and other items such as information about neighborhood-watch programs.
The two city employees authorized to use the account are no longer employed by Moss Point.
Inquiry prompts probe
Broomfield said he had suspected some of the spending was inappropriate, but his name was not on the account, and the bank would not release the records to him when he requested them several years ago.
“I didn’t know of the misuse to the extent it was being done,” Broomfield said in an exclusive interview Monday. “I just knew it was an account I should be aware of and I was not privileged in that.”
Questionable spending came to light after Brandon Ashley was appointed interim police chief and looked at the account. The city then alerted the District Attorney’s Office and the State Auditor’s Office launched its investigation.
The State Auditor’s Office is not commenting on the ongoing investigation.
But Broomfield said the city will remain “transparent” about the investigation and any alleged wrongdoing “will be revealed.”
Authority to spend
Former Court Clerk Supervisor Michelle Hodge and former Police Chief Art McClung were authorized to use the account, Broomfield confirmed.
Hodge resigned after the Board of Aldermen voted in October to fire her for reasons that were not specified in minutes from the meeting. However, Broomfield said the vote came after he told city leaders about the questionable spending in the police benefit fund.
The Sun Herald has not been able to reach Hodge for comment.
McClung resigned in September after the Sun Herald reported Pascagoula police had stopped him July 29 because he was clocked there driving 109 mph and admitted he had drunk “at least three vodkas.” Pascagoula police gave him a ride home.
Over a two-year period, the benefit fund paid for more than 20 trips to fast-food restaurants including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Taco Bell and Subway. Most of the purchases were for less than $10.
Other money was spent at Ruby Tuesday, Ly Chinese Buffet, Newk’s, Bozo’s Grocery, Faye’s Kitchen, Pizza Hut, Woody’s Roadside Grill, Sonic and Fayard’s Grocery. At least one trip was made to Champs Buffet in Mobile.
The benefit fund also paid for trips to retail stores such as Belk, Burke’s Outlet and Cato Fashions, and it paid for overnight stays at the Drury Inn in Alabama and the Marriott in Jackson. It paid $258 to Enterprise Rental and $427 to GameStop.
Four stops at Cork N Bottle Liquor in Gautier totaled $64.80, and a total of $23.98 paid for two monthly subscriptions to Hulu, an online video-streaming service.
Other payments included $35 for services at Hot Nails, $34 at Stars Nails & Spa and $14.93 at Metro Beauty supply store.
The account also paid for two meals that cost just under $100 each at Tugus Family Restaurant, and dinners that cost just under $13 each at Hacienda San Miguel in Moss Point.
Broomfield said McClung told him he used the account to pay for the meals at Tugus because he was entertaining visitors to the city.
“Well, that’s not uncommon,” Broomfield said.
The majority of spending occurred at Wal-Mart, with 40 trips there totaling $2,647.
Additional expenses included $895 in cash withdrawals from Merchants & Marine Bank, where the account is set up.
After speaking with Hodge, Broomfield said, he learned “she thought she could use it (the account) and pay it back in some instances, but that wasn’t the case with the nails, with the Fred’s store, with the liquor store, with the motel (and with) the department stores. So I’m not sure what her logic or thinking was.”
He said Hodge also solicited money for the account. In one case, he said, Hodge requested a $500 donation from a business that had already donated. He said Hodge wanted the business to write a check payable to her instead of the Police Department Benefit Fund.
Account records also show either McClung or Hodge went to ATMs for balance inquiries at a cost of $2 each because they were using ATMs at banks other than M&M. The balance was usually checked when the account was low on funds.
The last statement given to the Sun Herald, for September, showed a balance of $157.10. The first bank statement the Sun Herald reviewed from the end of August 2014 showed a balance of $1,321.
Fund donors are not identified in the records. Only a couple of receipts are available and show donations came from different groups, such as $1,000 from Antioch Baptist Church.
Broomfield said the city is determined to get the bottom of any potential misspending.
“You may get by for a while, but what happened will be revealed,” Broomfield said. “At some point, you can bet, I will find out what happened.”