CORRUPTING MONEY: While Mississippi is mid pack in terms of illegal corruption, it is considered one of the nation’s worst when it comes to legal corruption or the use of campaign contributions or endorsements in exchange for favors for groups or individuals.
By Steve Wilson | Mississippi Watchdog
Perception is reality, and when it comes to Mississippi corruption, the state’s not immune.
In the past few months, Mississippi has seen multi-count indictments:
- The former state corrections commissioner, Chris Epps, and former state legislator and justice court judge Cecil McCrory face corruption charges regarding contractor services at the state prisons.
- Alcorn County supervisor Jimmy Dallan “Dal” Nelms and four alleged conspirators face corruption charges regarding alleged bid rigging with county purchases of heavy equipment.
Previous studies, such as one by researchers Cheol Liu from the City University of Hong Kong and Indiana University’s John L. Mikesell, relied on federal corruption convictions and confirmed the perception, at least from 1976 to 2008, that Mississippi was the most corrupt state in the nation.
Maybe that perception isn’t reality.
Mississippi was among the worst in terms of the corrupting power of money in politics, but not in terms of “illegal” corruption, according to a recently released study by economist Oguzhan Dincer and political science professor Michael Johnston from the Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.
Arizona was perceived to be the most corrupt state in terms of illegal corruption, followed by California, Kentucky, Alabama, Illinois and New Jersey. Despite recent headlines, Mississippi was merely mid pack.
The pair surveyed more than 280 state government and investigative reporters in 49 states — all except Louisiana — on their perceptions of corruption in their states. According to the study, illegal corruption was defined as cash or gifts to a public official in exchange for providing specific benefits to an individual or a group.
Auditor Stacey Pickering told Mississippi Watchdog the state is making strides in the fight against corruption. One component to waging the battle is technology, as his investigators — many of whom are certified public accountants — use forensic accounting to track down financial wrongdoing.
The biggest thing that has changed, Pickering said, is the willingness of contractors and public employees to come forward with information.
“I tell folks all the time at training, elected officials and state employees, there is a paper trail, a digital trail you generate and you cannot hide that,” Pickering said. “There’s a lot of trust, not among just the law enforcement community, but also most importantly, the public employees and the vendors who actually see the corruption taking place and are willing to turn it in.
“Fighting corruption doesn’t just fall on law enforcement, but on every public employee and every taxpayer in the state to report it.”
Where Dincer and Johnston’s study tracks into the proverbial weeds is in its definition of “legal” corruption, which it defines as providing campaign contributions or endorsements to officials in exchange for specific benefits for groups or individuals. The state was listed as one of the worst in this measure, behind Kentucky, Illinois and Nevada.
But corruption by its nature is illegal and the term is an oxymoron — like jumbo shrimp or an open secret. For evidence of the corrupting power of money in politics, the pair cited several opinion polls on the public’s perception of the practice.
Mississippi law on campaign finance is a mixed bag. The laws on financial reporting of political committees are strict, with any political organization that raises $200 or more required to register with the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office. These laws were the subject of a recent lawsuit — Justice v. Hosemann — in which the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the state’s statutes on political committee financial reporting.
But there are no limits on individual contributions to candidates for most offices except for judgeships, just corporate limits for a party or a candidate ($1,000 in a calendar year).
Since many judicial posts in Mississippi are considered nonpartisan, candidates are prohibited by law from campaigning or qualifying for office based on party affiliation. Judicial candidates in Mississippi have contribution limits of $2,500 from individuals or groups for county judge candidates and $5,000 for Mississippi Supreme Court candidates.