Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Mitchell: Reforms Enacted; ‘Meaningful’ Yet to Be Determined

Let’s approach this with a timeline:

December 2013 — A task force completes its report on wide-ranging changes designed to rein in the double-digit percentage increases in corrections (prison) expenses. Many of the suggestions become law during the 2014 legislative session.

Nov. 5, 2014 — Christopher Epps, a 33-year employee of the Mississippi Department of Corrections who has become widely admired by the media and in national corrections circles while serving as corrections commissioner under three governors, shows up at his Jackson office as usual. He cleans out his desk and turns in a one-paragraph immediate resignation. He leaves.

Nov. 6, 2014 — Federal officials unseal a 49-count indictment accusing Epps and Cecil McCrory, a former legislator, with 21 pages of wrongdoing — bribery, kickbacks and assorted other crimes involving at least $1 million, possibly as much as $2 million. “I am shocked by this,” Epps tells the media. The Clarion-Ledger notes Epps is wearing a gold Rolex watch. (Epps is paid a good salary — $137,000 per year, but cheap Rolex models are $3,000. A decent one is $30,000 and rare ones cost anywhere from $500,000 to $1.2 million.)

Nov. 7, 2014 — Gov. Phil Bryant orders a top-down review of all Department of Corrections contracts.

Nov. 21, 2014 — Gov. Bryant beefs up the new prison task force, adding a circuit judge, former Attorney General Mike Moore and Andy Taggert, who was chief of staff to former Gov. Kirk Fordice. Bryant says all meetings of the group will adhere to the Open Meetings Act.

Feb. 15, 2015 — Epps and McCrory show up at the federal courthouse. Epps pleads guilty to two counts and filing a false tax return, agrees to forfeit $1 million, his Flowood home, a Gulf Coast condo and two Mercedes. He tells the judge, “I am sorry for what I have done.” Sentencing is set for June 9, when Epps may learn what life is like on the other side of prison bars.

Feb. 15, 2015 — On the same day, Gov. Bryant insists on reforms. “I will not tolerate corruption at any level, and I am continuing to work with the Legislature to implement meaningful reform to the state contracting process.”

At the time, a beefy bill was wending its way through state House and Senate chambers.

On the House side, Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, was the go-to guy. He chairs the Accountability, Transparency and Efficiency Committee and, in the role, championed legislation that including more disclosure, more controls.

Lobbyists have long been required to register and file expense reports in Mississippi. But if a concern wishes to “gift” his favorite lawmaker with a week in Las Vegas, the lawmaker is not required to report it. In the bill as passed by the House, this would change. Gifts worth more than $500 would be reportable on an annual basis.

The legislation would also add more hoops for agency heads entering “sole source” contracts. No power is more susceptible to corruption than an agency head’s power to spend without seeking bids.

It’s tempting to get “down in the weeds” and describe other components of the legislation as proposed and passed in the House in more detail. Let’s leave it that the collective effect would add some checks and balances and sow more sunshine. Bryant backed the measure as passed by the House.

But then it got to the Senate.

It’s cliché to say the Senate surreptitiously “watered it down,” and it’s also not 100 percent accurate. The Senate did strip out the requirement of reporting gifts (Vegas, here we come) and scaled back on other provisions. It did allow for more sunshine and retained some of the improved controls on sole-source contracting.

When it was returned to the House last week, members had a choice. They could send it to conference or pass the reforms on which the House and Senate agreed. House Bill 825 (http://billstatus.ls.state.ms.us/2015/pdf/history/HB/HB0825.xml for those who care to read all 56 pages) passed 102-16 and was sent to Gov. Bryant who is reported to be amenable to signing it.

Part and parcel of the legislative process is give and take. Turner said he didn’t think the Senate would be willing to rethink the provisions it whacked.

So it’s a step in the right direction. Was it a “meaningful” step? Others can decide that. It was a step, though.

No doubt that most public officials are bone honest. But for those who choose to live the high life off their positions of trust, the law still says nobody has to know. If any of you are reading, www.rolex.com.

Charlie-Mitchell-mugshot-2013-200x300Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist and assistant dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.