Harrison County

‘A serious red flag’ at Coast mental health agency may mean ethical violation

One of the board members overseeing financially troubled Gulf Coast Mental Health has run afoul of state ethics laws.

Laura Hasty represents Harrison County on the board while the company that she co-owns also leases office space from GCMH, one of 15 regional mental health agencies created under state law.

State ethics law prohibits any public board member from entering a contract with that board during their term of service and for one year after they leave.

“Any time a board member has a business relationship with that board, that’s a serious red flag,” said Tom Hood, Ethics Commission executive director. “They need to call us for advice immediately.”

Hasty told the Sun Herald a week ago that she has no conflict of interest because she did not join the GCMH board until 2016 and the lease “has never come up. It’s never been discussed in a meeting.”

Her company, The Ad Group, has been leasing its offices on the second floor of the building just north of Edgewater Mall in Biloxi since 1995, Hasty said. GCMH did not buy the building until 2007. The agency has a counseling center on the first floor.

What Hasty failed to mention was that, as The Ad Group president, she signed a new lease in April with GCMH.

She would not say what The Ad Group pays in monthly rent. After the telephone interview, the Sun Herald filed a public records request for the lease.

New attorneys for GCMH reviewed the request and GCMH’s interim director, Vickie Taylor, emailed the lease Wednesday afternoon to the Sun Herald.

Before the April lease was signed, Taylor said, the agency was collecting $1,200 a month from The Ad Group. She said The Ad Group and GCHM had no written lease, operating instead under a letter from the mental health agency to The Ad Group.

Taylor also sent a copy of the July 2007 letter, which said GCMH had bought the building but there would be no immediate changes to the lease and Hasty should mail The Ad Group’s rent check to GCMH’s address in Gulfport.

The auditing firm advised GCMH that a lease would need to be in place for the building before an annual audit could be completed this year, Taylor said. The lease signed in April includes $1,500 a month in rent, runs for one year and renews each year after unless one of the parties give 60 days’ notice of termination.

When she first joined the board, Hasty disclosed the rental arrangement. Because the rental agreement was preexisting, county attorney Tim Holleman said it was not a conflict for her to serve as a GCMH commissioner as long as she did not vote on any matters involving the lease.

When Hasty signed the new lease in April, she was in the third year of a four-year term on the board. The fact that she signed a new lease while serving on the board brings state ethics laws into play.

The new agreement also came at a time of management and financial upheaval at GCMH. Financial mismanagement almost led to the agency’s demise, agency records show.

Some have called for the four board members to resign because they waited until June to approach member counties and the state for financial help to survive.

Hasty, for one, said others have urged her to stay because she is familiar with GCMH’s issues and is working to help straighten them out.

She said her company also has provided free landscaping and press washing for the building, and paid for a new dishwasher.

“I don’t get anything for free and we’ve been here long before Gulf Coast Mental Health bought the building,” she said last week. “I pay the rent. If anything, I help out.”

A violation of state ethics law, determined by the Ethics Commission, is punishable with a fine of up to $10,000.

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Anita Lee is a Mississippi native who specializes in investigative, court and government reporting. She has covered South Mississippi’s biggest stories in her decades at the Sun Herald, including the Dixie Mafia, public corruption and Hurricane Katrina, a Pulitzer Prize-winning effort. Nothing upsets her more than government secrecy and seeing people suffer.
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