It’s one of the most famous movies ever, with many memorable lines.
One comes to mind whenever cavalier handling of public funds comes to light in Mississippi. It’s where Capt. Renault blows his shrill whistle and orders everybody out of Rick’s tavern. “How can you close me up?” Rick demands. “On what grounds?” The officious Renault responds, “I’m shocked, shocked to find out that gambling is going on in here!”
The crucial part of the scene follows when a casino teller discretely slides Renault a wad of cash and says, “Here are your winnings, sir.” The captain waves his ill-gotten gains in the air while chasing people out the door for engaging in the same behavior.
Perhaps it’s unfair, but if there’s a remake of “Casablanca,” could it be set in Mississippi?
The pattern seems familiar.
Most recently, the Legislative PEER Committee outed the Mississippi Department of Education for what appears to be end runs of state contracting laws.
Yes, state Auditor Stacey Pickering showed up for the reporters and cameras to express appropriate shock and outrage and promise a thorough and full investigation, but it was the Legislature’s PEER Committee staff that dug through the records. Here’s a hitch: The legislative watchdog committee, people should know, can only investigate what it’s told to investigate by committee members.
But first, one has to wonder where the Department of Audit was all along. There’s probably no state with more checks and balances and agencies to handle and monitor public funds than Mississippi. The Department of Audit works in one lane in the maze, and, like PEER, is also limited both as to what can be audited and whether audit reports can be released to the public. Auditors are hamstrung as to how to initiate demands for repayment or prosecution and often must hand cases over to the discretion of the Attorney General.
Scrambled eggs. The system could not be more confusing if it were designed to be abused. (Think about that.) Abuses can continue for years unless or until someone has had enough.
Second, it’s no secret that the Department of Education is no jewel in the eyes of the Legislature. Many lawmakers see it as a bottomless pit for funds they would much rather spend elsewhere. Be clear, every lawmaker is “for education,” but few think the state is getting enough bang for its educational buck.
So did the Legislature sic its attack dog on the Department of Education knowing abuses would be found? Who knows? But abuses were there, were flagrant and certain to hurt whatever public confidence remains for public education. Hundreds of thousands for consultants with no competitive bidding and murky, if any, results. The situation smacks of deals where money flows one way, and some finds its way back.
The saga of former Commissioner of Corrections Chris Epps displayed a similar pattern. Epps served under three governors who expressed confidence in his management of budgets that rose to top $400 million during his tenure.
A federal — not state — investigation unraveled years of ripping off taxpayers, inmates and their families. In sentencing Epps to nearly 20 years in prison, U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate said the total value of contracts involved was $868 million. The judge called the level of criminal conduct, “staggering,” yet two members of the Legislature had written to Wingate pleading for leniency.
Call it what you want, but “merry-go-round” seems fair. 1. A custodian of public funds gets a little too frisky. 2. Some more powerful entity gets involved. 3. There is shock and surprise. 3. A blue-ribbon committee or task force is appointed. 4. The Legislature passes a few more laws to add to the dozens upon dozens already in place. 5. The cycle begins anew.
In fairness, it must be said that an honest person doesn’t need rules and a crook will always find a way through or around. When there’s a pot of free money being passed around, opportunists will try to grab a handful as it goes by.
Is it possible to break these cycles? Yes, and it should be a priority in a state as cash-strapped as Mississippi.
The first step is for the public to be ready and willing to do that.
Until then, the scene will run and rerun. Same script. Same scenes. Same lines. Different actors will be nabbed in a quest for purity, expressions of piety and pledges to tighten up will follow, and in a few months it will be someone else’s turn.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist.