Consulting contracts in Mississippi should be open for bidding

CONSULTATION: According to state law, no-bid contracts are allowed on single-source acquisitions and personal services (consulting).

By Steve Wilson | Mississippi Watchdog

Want to guess about the best gig in Mississippi?

If you said playing in B.B. King’s backing band or anything else, you’re way off base. The correct answer is acting as a consultant to a state agency or a contractor doing business with Mississippi.

According to state law, no bidding process is required for an agency to hire a consultant or buy a good or a service from a sole source. In the case of the former, it’s a system rife for abuse and an easy gig if you have the right connections.

Like travel site Priceline.com, contractors can name their own price. A great example is the scandal that has engulfed the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

According to a 49-count federal indictment handed down last month, former state legislator, justice court judge and Rankin County school board president Cecil McCrory received $12,000 per month from Management and Training Corp. to act as a consultant. This company was paid $58 million by the state in 2014 to operate four prisons in Mississippi — East Mississippi, Marshall County, Walnut Grove and Wilkinson County.

Former State Corrections commissioner Chris Epps, according to the indictment, allegedly lobbied Management and Training Corp. to hire McCrory as a consultant. For those doing the math at home, that’s $144,000 per year for consultation fees.

The ethics issues present in this alleged scheme are multi-fold. A state official (Epps) allegedly lobbying a state contractor to hire a man (McCrory) who owned several companies who did business with the Department of Corrections is worrisome. Add the alleged bribes from McCrory that kept Epps well-stocked with a $359,000 mansion, two uber-expensive Mercedes Benz luxury sedans and a condominium in Pass Christian and you have an ulcer-inducing situation.

So what do these consultants do that well-paid state employees aren’t capable of doing themselves? State agencies don’t have to explain the need. All they have to do is reveal how much the consultant costs on the state’s expenditure report.

Is this a good use of taxpayer dollars? Shouldn’t the agency have some way to be held accountable for their use of taxpayer funds? At present, there is no law that governs agencies and their hiring of consultants. There isn’t any law that prohibits officials lobbying state contractors to hire (allegedly in the case of Epps) certain well-connected friends as “consultants.”

The solution is obvious. The Legislature needs to apply its oversight powers on state agencies’ abilities to hire consultants. Make them answer three questions:

  • Why can’t the agency’s employees do this better than an expensive contractor?
  • How much will this cost the taxpayers and what will they receive?
  • Is there anyone else who can perform this service?

A law prohibiting agencies from lobbying for the hire of a particular consultant to receive money from companies doing business with the state would be another solid step.

The bottom line is consulting contracts in Mississippi need to be open for bidding and companies doing business with the state. It’s the only way to ensure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely.

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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