Mississippi spends more annually on beaver control — $1.1 million — and regulating cosmetologists — $1 million — than it does on monitoring ethics in state government, at $730,000 a year.
Penalties for leaking info about a Mississippi Ethics Commission complaint against a politician or filing one with false info carry jail time and hefty fines.
But actually violating most of Mississippi’s ethics, conflict of interest, open meetings, public records and campaign finance laws carry no jail time or felony charges. Fines start as low as $50 and can be waived.
How can you tell it’s statewide election time in Mississippi?
Because there’s talk of reform, ethics, transparency, preventing corruption and getting to the bottom of the latest mega-thievery scandal plaguing the Magnolia State. This time it’s tens of millions of welfare dollars meant for the poorest of the poor that were stolen or misspent.
But corruption is like the weather in Mississippi — lots of people talk about it, but nobody ever seems to do anything, unless it’s the feds doing one of their once-a-decade or so roundup operations. State lawmakers have been loathe to enact meaningful reform, transparency or oversight of the intersection of politics and money. This leaves the door wide open for corruption.
Mississippi’s campaign finance and lobbying laws are extremely confusing, conflicting and lax, but that’s almost beside the point. Alleged violations are seldom investigated or enforced. The attorney general’s office appears to be the only state agency with clear authority to investigate and enforce, but it almost never does. AG actions on campaign finances or lobbying over the years have been so rare that, when they do happen, they bring outcry of selective enforcement.
Mississippi allows politicians (except some judges) to take unlimited campaign contributions from individuals, LLCs and PACs. Unlike some other states, Mississippi has no general “pay-to-play” prohibition on campaign contributions from people or companies doing business with government.
Unlike many other states, Mississippi has no “gift law” banning or limiting how much money lobbyists or others can spend on “gifts” for lawmakers.
Mississippi politicians are supposed to at least accurately report the money they receive, but this is enforced with the same fervor and similar penalties as jaywalking laws. And unlike most other states, Mississippi politicians’ reports are not electronically searchable. Transparency has never been Mississippi government’s strong suit.
Bribery of a politician is, ostensibly, illegal in Mississippi, but the state has a long-running tradition of leaving any enforcement of that up to the feds.
This statewide election cycle has already brought allegations of campaign finance law violations.
Mississippi’s campaign finance laws are aimed at providing transparency to the voting public and limiting the corrosive influence of big money in politics. But the laws are a confusing, often conflicting patchwork that’s been piecemealed into the state code books without providing clear authority. The secretary of state’s office is responsible for receiving campaign finance reports, but serves mainly as a repository, with no real investigative or enforcement authority. The Ethics Commission, after some changes to laws in recent years, appears to have some authority, but it’s really unclear.
“It’s a mess,” state Ethics Commission Director Tom Hood said of Mississippi’s campaign finance laws. “Changes have been made multiple times over multiple years, and it’s like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t fit.
“For instance, (state code) 23-15-803 says the Ethics Commission can impose penalties on political committees,” Hood said. “But then it refers to another section of law that doesn’t appear to apply, and it doesn’t say what our authority is or give us a process.”
In other states, ethics commissions have more authority, funding and staff. In Alabama, for instance, its Ethics Commission receives more than $3 million a year in funding, and has about 20 employees. Mississippi’s has six employees — including only one investigator for the whole state — and for the coming year was budgeted at $730,000.
Alabama in the mid-1990s reformed and revised its ethics laws and gave its commission clearer authority. Violations of that state’s ethics laws carry prison sentences up to 20 years. Over many years, Alabama has seen numerous public officials and employees who run afoul of its laws fined, removed from office and-or jailed. For example, former Gov. Guy Hunt was convicted and removed from office for using $200,000 from his inaugural fund for personal use. Former Gov. Robert J. Bentley pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, resigned, was given a suspended sentence and agreed to a lifetime ban on running for office in Alabama.
Hood said he’s not pushing lawmakers for large increases in funding or authority for the Mississippi’s Ethics Commission. But he would like for laws and responsibilities to be clearer, particularly with campaign finance issues.
“Somebody needs to have clear authority and responsibility to enforce the law — that would be a good first step,” Hood said. “… If you want to prevent somebody from stealing, then you should promote transparency. I feel like our laws do a pretty good job of that, except for campaign finance.”