Mayor Greg Mitchell pays fine and restitution in ethics case

Published 1:37 pm Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Picayune’s Mayor Greg Mitchell has voluntarily repaid money to the City of Picayune and has paid a fine levied against him by the Mississippi Ethics Commission.

The decision by the commission pertains to two incidents where the mayor voted in such a way that his son, Greg Mitchell Jr., and daughter, Emily Burge, benefited monetarily.

An investigation by the Ethics Commission was established after the office received a complaint concerning Mitchell’s actions in April of this year, said Tom Hood, executive director of the Ethics Commission. The investigation ended in June and the commission recently accepted Mitchell’s settlement of $1,266 from Mitchell’s attorney, Joe Holliman. Mitchell also paid a $500 civil fine to the state, a commission press release states.

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Hood said if there had not been a settlement, then the state could have pursued action against Mitchell, either before a court or the commission. That action could have resulted in a monetary fine, removal from office or both, Hood said.

The two incidents the commission investigated involved painting of the first floor of the new city hall and purchase of sporting goods from Instant Replay Sporting Goods, Burge’s business. The purchase from Replay Sporting Goods included baseball and football equipment such as a home plate, baseball score books, catcher protective gear, batting helmets and baseballs and footballs.

“It appeared that the transaction took place just to get money in the mayor’s daughter’s pocket,” Hood said.

Hood said the check made out to Burge had her name on it, as opposed to the business’s name.

“That certainly made it clear that the mayor’s daughter had an interest in that payment,” Hood said.

Hood said it appeared that the city used some of the sporting goods purchased.

The painting job was investigated because Greg Mitchell Jr. was employed by James Herring, the painting contractor hired to paint the old Arizona Chemicals building, where city hall is now located. Investigation into the matter found that Greg Mitchell Jr. was paid between $2,500 and $2,700 in cash to help paint that building, Hood said. Herring quoted the total price of the job at $22,500. However a dispute between city officials and Herring on the total square footage actually painted led to the final amount paid to Herring being reduced. According to payment records filed at city hall, Herring was paid what he quoted, less $3,500.

That job also appeared to have been let without a bidding process or even a contract between the city and Herring.

Under the purchasing law summary of July 2004, governing bodies must go out for bids with published notification in the local newspaper on projects with an expenditure of more than $15,000. According to past issues of the Picayune Item, there was no such publication. A request for information by the Picayune Item did not provide copies of a bidding attempt or a contract for James Herring to paint the building. In interviews conducted months prior to the commission’s announcement, James Herring, Mitchell, Interim City Manager Harvey Miller, Diane Miller, council member Jerry Bounds and former Operations Manager Glade Woods all said there was no bid or contract to speak of.

“I signed no contact, put it that way,” Harvey Miller said.

Mitchell said during that interview there was no bid because the city was in an emergency situation, which allowed it to make the purchase without a bid. The purchase law summary does state that in emergencies, storms included, that the bidding process can be skipped “when the delay incident to publishing an advertisement for competitive bids would endanger public safety in a specific (not general) manner.”

“We were in a mode to get moved to the Arizona Chemical building out there, mainly because we had already… obtained the building and we wanted to occupy (it) and so we could get better services for the people in there,” Mitchell said. “I do think that the paint job on the first floor down there is one of the highlights of one of the greatest things, or the best things, that we’ve done.”

Mitchell also said in that previous interview that finding people to do work after Hurricane Katrina was a difficult process.

Herring said he heard of the job from Mitchell. Mitchell said at the time Herring was conducting construction and painting work on his house and that he mentioned the job to Herring, but did not hire him to do the job. He said then city manger Reggie Frierson’s secretary, Diane Miller, hired James Herring, supposedly with Frierson’s approval.

“Evidently there was an agreement on price by somebody, and I had nothing to do with that, that was them, the city manager,” Mitchell said. “I hope you’re not implying that I sent (James Herring) over there to get that job and he’d be paid so much to do it, I don’t think you would do that,” Mitchell said.

Diane Miller said Woods, Mitchell and ex-chief building inspector Shane Frierson had a large part in hiring James Herring.

“The truth of the matter is Greg would have been part of it because the guy was actually employed by Greg at the time. He stopped working on Greg’s house to come over here and do this, and then went back to Greg’s house to finish it,” Diane Miller said.

No matter if Mitchell was directly involved with hiring Herring or not, Hood said it was illegal for Mitchell to be involved in voting on the project that would hire a company that would employ his son. The commission’s investigation turned up no concrete evidence about who actually hired Herring.

The commission’s investigation did not turn up any evidence that Mayor Mitchell received any benefits from Herring conducting the painting job.

Greg Mitchell Sr., council members Leavern Guy and Jerry Bounds had no comment on the Commission’s announcement. Mitchell referred the Picayune Item to contact his attorney, Joe Holliman, who said he was hired by Mitchell to represent him in the commission case. Holliman said he was instructed by the mayor to cooperate with the investigation and bring it to a quick resolution for the good of the city. He said the mayor certainly did not know he was doing anything wrong and that it is the responsibility of the city attorney to ensure the items on the claims docket were in compliance with state statues.

City Attorney Nathan Farmer said he does not have a comment on the matter since he has not received a copy of the information from the Ethics Commission. However City Clerk Priscilla Daniel said the city attorney typically does not receive a copy of the claims docket.

Interim City Manager Harvey Miller said he has not spoken to anyone at the Ethics Commission office about the decision, but the city is moving forward as normal.

A call to the Mississippi State Auditor’s office determine that there is no investigation by that office on the matters mentioned in the Ethics Commission press release, said Director of Communications Lisa Shoemaker.

“We don’t have an investigation involving the current mayor of Picayune,” Shoemaker said.