Analysis: Corruption sweeps Mississippi again

These are the headlines of a state's despair.

  • "Former Commissioner of Department of Corrections and local businessman plead guilty in federal court."
  • "Three plead guilty to bribery charges."
  • "Former public works general manager pleads guilty to federal kickback scheme."
  • But they aren't from the Chicago Tribune, the paper of record for Illinois, a state with an image tarnished by decades of crooked government. They are from this state, torn straight from the FBI's Jackson Division website. And they are just for February.

    It's an old tale around Mississippi. Corrupt officials feed on an unsuspecting public for years undeterred by state laws or the efforts of crime-fighting state or local officials. Then the feds swoop in, issue a flurry of indictments and send the bad guys off to prison.

    One federal prosecutor last week said he's had his fill of this cycle of government malfeasance. He quit his job and threw his hat in the ring for the state attorney general post.

    Former prosecutor Mike Hurst said Attorney General Jim Hood has been absent during these probes, including the most-recent one that was punctuated by the suicide of Harrison County Supervisor William Martin of Gulfport. Martin killed himself Thursday, shortly before he was due in federal court to face corruption charges.

    We're No. 1

    "Our attorney general should be prosecuting these public-corruption matters," Hurst said. "If our attorney general was prosecuting these cases with the U.S. Attorney's Office, we wouldn't be No. 1 in the nation in public corruption."

    Hurst was referring to a study of Cheol Liu of the City University of Hong Kong and John L. Mikesell of Indiana University that covered federal convictions from 1976 to 2008.

    Hood was invited via email Friday to weigh in on the issue, but he didn't respond to those questions.

    "We were trying to get this to you before we left today, but just cannot pull it together on such short notice," his spokeswoman Jan Schaefer wrote in an email. "It will have to be next week. I'll get it to you just as soon as we are able."

    Hurst said he has had a willing partner in the corruption fight in state Auditor Stacey Pickering.

    "We work real close with the auditor's office and they work really close with the FBI," Hurst said. "I wish they had prosecutorial authority."

    Hurst and Pickering are Republicans. Hood is a Democrat.

    Pickering disagrees with the No. 1 ranking -- he said the numbers are old. But he said they show officials are being brought to justice.

    "We do a very good job in Mississippi going after public corruption," he said. "We don't tolerate it. You're going to be held accountable."

    But he agrees more could be done.

    "There are always things we can do to strengthen our laws," he said.

    Not tough enough

    For instance, a couple of years ago, the Legislature passed a law barring anyone convicted of public corruption from working for a government entity.

    A bill that would have taken away the taxpayer-funded portion of retirement benefits from those convicted of public corruption died in the Legislature this year.

    "I think that is a pretty good set of teeth that would dissuade any public employee," Pickering said. "Right now, Bill Walker is a good example on the Coast and Chris Epps is another one. They're going to draw their state retirement. (Walker) may be drawing while he's sitting in jail."

    Walker, the former director of the state Department of Marine Resources, was sent to prison for corruption in 2014. Epps pleaded guilty last week to a bribery scheme with a Jackson-area businessman who also pleaded guilty. They are scheduled to be sentenced in June.

    "There has to be a penalty. I think if we are really serious about rooting out public corruption, we have to make sure there are good teeth in our laws," Pickering said.

    "It's the human condition where you got greed and selfishness, all those factors play a role. It just boils down to what we teach our kids in Sunday School and church. Humanity. We just have a base nature."

    Remember Pretense?

    Pickering said he expects the latest investigation, centering on the Department of Corrections, will sweep across many counties. That would be similar to Operation Pretense, which snared dozens of county supervisors and others in the late 1980s.

    Then there is the Harrison County Utility Authority, where a federal problem has resulted in guilty pleas from former Supervisor Kim Savant and likely next week a guilty plea from contractor Sean Anthony. Former Director Kamran Pahlavan faces a July trial in that case.

    The problem has been studied half to death, and everything from low pay of government workers to a lack of transparency in government has been blamed.

    Right now, Hurst said, state-federal cooperation is the best crime-fighting tool officials have.

    "Working with the FBI, we see a whole lot of public corruption going on around the state. The thing that has bothered me from Day 1 is the complete absence of the attorney general," he said. "I'm taking a leap of faith in leaving my job with the hopes the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Attorney General's Office can prosecute public corruption cases together.

    "I think that's the only way we dig ourselves out of this hole. I don't understand what the problem is over there."