‘Sealed settlements’ mask the cost of wrongdoing
Two lawsuits accusing Mississippi officials of wrongdoing have been settled without trials this summer. Taxpayers can know the cost for one. For the other, they can’t.
No reason, really.
In the normal course of American life, how public money is spent is public information. We can know how much Simpson County paid for diesel last month, to the penny. We can know the cost of a gallon of paint used to spruce up the Governor’s Mansion.
At the federal level, there are secret funds for intelligence, covert ops and such. The rationale is that disclosing spycraft spending would infringe on the ability of the secret agencies to protect us. Like it or not, that makes sense.
No such logic applies when the state agrees to a settlement for official misconduct. All it does is mask the wrongdoing that has been alleged.
The case made public is sordid from beginning to end. It dates to 1979 when Eva Gail Patterson was raped and murdered in the Forrest County crossroads community known as Eatonville.
Larry Ruffin, Phillip Bivens and Bobby Ray Dixon were arrested. Reports were they were beaten until they confessed and then beaten until their stories matched. All three received life terms.
With the advent of DNA matching and the efforts of the Innocence Project, another person, Andrew Harris, was linked in 2010 to the Patterson murder. It was pretty easy to find Harris. He was already in prison serving life for a 1981 rape, also in the Hattiesburg area.
The new evidence didn’t help Ruffin. He had died in prison in 2002. It didn’t help Dixon much. He died within months of his release. Bivens died in 2014.
By virtue of the civil case settlement, approved by U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett, their heirs are to share $16.5 million. It should be noted that each man’s estate also received $50,000 from the state, the amount set by a state law enacted in reaction to a bevy of damage awards in wrongful conviction cases.
The settlement to which the public has been denied access is fairly sordid, too. It dates to last year when Mary Katherine Sullivan initiated a federal sexual harassment lawsuit against her employer, the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, and, specifically, Deputy Director Mike Perkins.
Among tidbits alleged is that Perkins openly displayed a certificate indicating he received training related to gender discrimination, but it had the word “failed” stamped on it. Funny, huh? Another allegation was female applicants for MBN jobs were numbered on the “Perkins Scale” according to their sexual desirability.
Sullivan initiated the case saying she had been subjected to a pattern of abuse in a sexually hostile workplace, that she had been propositioned and was denied promotions and pay commensurate with her work.
U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate dismissed the case after it was settled and decreed that details be kept secret.
A 2009 study of the 245,326 federal cases filed in 2006 showed sealing files is rare at the federal level — only 576 or .02 percent. Rationales for closure were varied. Some involved minors; some involved confidential business information. Some were closed at the request of parties, which is very similar to a bully picking a fight and then hiding behind his mother’s skirt. Seriously. A judge has no interest in secrecy. Parties ask for an order, receive it and then run behind the judge’s robes.
Courts aren’t blameless. Trust is all the judicial branch has going for it, and when public entities can make private deals with court approval that’s certainly not helpful in demonstrating that everything is on the up and up.
Secrecy in cases such as the Sullivan-MBN case is bad policy. Her case could have been completely bogus, riddled with false allegations. She could be the culprit and Perkins, who has since retired, could be a model supervisor. She and others may have been received $1, $1 million or $100 million. The people simply cannot know, and that’s wrong.
This is not how justice is supposed to work. When a person is accused of wrongdoing, especially criminal wrongdoing, courts in a democracy must be totally forthcoming about the specific charge, the verdict and the punishment, if any. We loathe nations where courts have no accountability to the public; we call those nations all sorts of names.
But here in Mississippi this summer, with very little notice or outcry, serious (though not criminal) charges against a public agency and one of its leaders were resolved, and we’re all just supposed to assume a proper outcome was reached.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.