An excellent starting point

Published 4:40 pm Monday, February 5, 2007

Public scrutiny and a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development review may have caused the Mississippi Development Authority to alter how it handles contracts, which is good.

But more is needed. An overhaul is needed to avoid deals such as the one involving the Homeowner Grant Program.

A company created by Sen. Tommy Robertson, R-Moss Point, and Rep. Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, was awarded a contract with MDA to complete grants. The deal could be worth more than $1 million. Even though the Mississippi Ethics Commission dismissed a complaint naming Robertson and Beckett, the reality of legislators winning such a contract with the state has the appearance of insiders getting the state’s business.

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It is doubtful most Mississippians want the government to conduct its business like that. A majority of state ethics commissioners may not have found the deal ethically challenged, but the contract reportedly remains of interest to the HUD inspector general.

A HUD review of the grant program in August 2006 found MDA may not have conformed to the standards of conduct program rule in the selection process.

U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor said he wants Congress to study and then act to prohibit state officials from cashing in on contracts such as those generated by the Hurricane Katrina grant program.

When the news first broke about the grant contract, U.S. Sen. Trent Lott questioned why the state even involved lawyers in the closings.

MDA reportedly has a policy to determine if contract bidders are aware of any potential conflicts of interest. Apparently, the burden will be placed on the bidders to report any potential violation of state ethics laws.

Although responsibility for ethical behavior is the responsibility of the state employee, MDA will make the change requiring future responders to proposals to indicate any potential violations, MDA officials wrote in a response to HUD.

Given that the Ethics Commission has issued conflicting rulings involving state contracts with elected officials, the definitions of what is right and wrong ought to be drawn clearly.

And, MDA could start the process by prohibiting contracts with state employees and elected officials. That would be an excellent starting point.