Politicians shouldn’t be for sale in state

Published 12:00 pm Tuesday, April 5, 2016

By Wyatt Emmerich

Startup Engineering company Trilogy Engineering is trying to get a $400,000 contract with the city of Jackson to study lead contamination in the water supply.

As it turns out, Trilogy’s top executives were involved in fundraising efforts for Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber, who is pushing the council to give Trilogy the contract.

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When council members grilled Trilogy president Phillip Gibson about fundraising for the mayor he responsed, “So does every other engineering company in the state.”

Therein lies the problem. Throughout Mississippi, contractors donate to politicians who, once elected, pay back their donors by favoring them for huge government contracts. As a result, taxpayers are overcharged.

Instead of concentrating on the best services for the least amount of money, contractors focus on buying politicians.

The cost of this corrupt system to Mississippi taxpayers is in the hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of dollars. This type of corruption is a significant factor in explaining Mississippi’s low per capita income compared to other states in the south.

If you look at successful states such as Florida or Texas, you will find extremely well-crafted bidding laws that apply to all levels of government. The bidding process is regulated by one centralized well-staffed agency with hundreds of professionals who monitor the process for fairness and legality. It’s good government.

Then look at Mississippi’s bidding laws. They are a jumbled, fragmented, vague, superficial mess with no centralized enforcement. Not to mention the hidden loopholes conveniently disguised throughout thousands of pages of state statutes.

Readers may recall the recent bidding scandal involving former prison head Chris Epps. The federal government estimates this one scandal alone cost taxpayers $300 million.

As it turns out, the Mississippi Department of Corrections was exempted from all bidding laws a decade ago by a single line of law snuck into an unrelated bill. Nobody knows who did this or why, but some of the people who were convicted along with Epps were former legislators.

Most states have documentation for all proposed laws and amendments to state legislation. That way you can go back and track these sneaky under-the-radar amendments. Not so in Mississippi. These types of loopholes are done in secret. Only a few conniving legislators know the score. Just one more example of how our corrupt state government operates.

Successful states require government work to be awarded to the “lowest responsive bidder.” That means the bid must be responsive to the request for proposal and must be the lowest price.

Not so in Mississippi. The work can go to the “lowest and best” bid. The key word here is “best.”  That’s a loophole you can drive a Mack truck through. It means a free-for-all for politicans to favor contractors who are padding their coffers.

To be sure, Mississippi has an ethics law, which is universally unenforced and has incredibly weak penalties.

What’s the penalty for violating our state ethics law? A maximum $10,000 fine and removal of office. The contract would be declared void and any profits would have to be relinquished. Most states send violators to jail. Not so here.

This assumes the state Ethics Commission would actually pursue such cases, which it doesn’t. The commission still have to petition a local circuit court judge to enforce its actions.

Our state ethics commission is headed by Tom Hood, the brother of Jim Hood, who has made national headlines for awarding big legal contracts to his political contributors. So I doubt our state ethics commission will be leading the charge to wipe out this type of soft corruption. Hood was easily re-elected this year, despite facing a challenger who pointed all this out. The challenger, Mike Hurst, was one of the federal prosecutors who put Chris Epps in jail.

And so it goes. The taxpayers get screwed but plenty of politically-connected wheeler-dealers make good money.

Wyatt Emmerich is a newspaper publisher in Mississippi. Contact him at wyatt@northsidesun.com.