Hinds County Supervisors can be hard to believe to at times

Published 5:01 pm Thursday, August 4, 2011

How can the Hinds County Board of Supervisors violate our bidding laws to the tune of millions and nobody seems to care?

Airwave LLC currently has a four million dollar contract to maintain the county’s portable radios. Problem is, the contract was not open to competitive bidding as is required by state law. Airwave also had an $800,000 contract to maintain the county’s sirens, but that was recently cancelled due to public scrutiny.

Without competitive bidding, the county is spending millions more money for radio maintenance than comparable counties.

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The failure to seek competitive bids is a growing problem throughout the state, but no one seems to care. Enforcement is left up to politicians, who themselves often benefit from the no-bid contracts or who don’t want to alienate powerful constituencies.

The likely prosecutor for no-bid violations would be Jim Hood, the attorney general, but Hood has battled the state Legislature over the right to hire his own political cronies as mass tort, contingency fee lawyers for the state.

Contributors to Hood have made tens of millions of dollars representing Hood without a bidding process for the government work. That makes Hood an unlikely champion of bidding integrity for government work. In addition, Hood will be depending on a lot of votes from Hinds County, making him an unlikely prosecutor of its board of supervisors.

After the attorney general, the most likely person to prosecute the Hinds County board would be State Auditor Stacey Pickering. Indeed, Pickering has acknowledged his office is investigating the no-bid contracts.

But the state auditor is limited in two big ways. First of all, the auditor has 16 investigators for the entire state and 174 active cases. There is a lack of manpower. More importantly, the state auditor lacks the ability to take his case directly to a grand jury. The auditor must get the state attorney general (see above) or the local district attorney to bring the case to a grand jury.

This restriction is a carryover from the days when Ray Mabus was state auditor. Mabus was perhaps the most active auditor in state history and prosecuted hundreds of supervisors and other state officials. Some may recall Mabus’ Operation Pretense, a massive sting operation which caught supervisors taking cash bribes on videotape. More than 10 percent of all the supervisors in the state were caught red-handed.

Ray Mabus turned the state auditor’s office into a powerful force against local government corruption. Operation Pretense propelled him to the governor’s mansion until a nasty recession and Kirk Fordice took him down.

As part of Mabus’ fall, the state Legislature, also a hotbed of political cronyism, stripped the state auditor’s office of the power to convene a grand jury, greatly decreasing the power of the state auditor.

And here we are today, with rampant abuse of government cronyism. It’s gotten so bad one candidate for governor, Ron Williams from the coast, has made rigged bids and no-bid government contracts the main issue of his campaign.

The first issue item on Williams’ Web site is no-bid contracts. He states, “I will work to end no-bid contracts. For years, large companies have been able to buy their way into huge government contracts. Many times, these companies charge more for their services than small businesses willing to do these services for a lower cost. This costs the government more and is a reason we have such a deficit in the state economy. Competition and the free market will decide who gets hired.”

Williams comes by this issue personally. As a hazardous waste contractor, he has seen the abuse first hand. When he visited me in my office, he was impassioned about it. He fretted that anyone relying on government contracts can’t make it without political clout. Being the best provider is not enough. He worried how his children could make it in the family business on merit alone.

The total state budget, including federal funds, is around $20 billion. If cronyism is costing 10 percent extra off the top, that’s a $2 billion annual cost to Mississippi taxpayers. Half the size of Mississippi’s general fund.

A big part of the problem is section 91-3-69 of the Mississippi Code, which allows for certain “professional services” to not be competitively bid.

The statute is restrictive in scope, applying just to state-licensed attorneys, accountants, physicians, engineers, architects and appraisers. But you know the old saying, give ‘em an inch and they’ll take a mile. The “professional services” loophole has become a huge sinkhole of abusive cronyism. With no one at the state level willing or capable of enforcement, it’s become a hogfest of “it’s not what you know but who you know.”

The massive growth of Mississippi’s lobbying business is a testament to the rampant cronyism enveloping our state. Huge multi-million-dollar bid specifications are written so narrowly that only one vendor qualifies – and it’s usually the vendor who has been writing checks to the lobbyists. There are hundreds of cases where top state officials have stepped right into jobs with major agency contractors (not to mention the companies they were supposed to be regulating).

The unfortunate trend toward “public-private” partnerships is making cronyism worse. All these public incentives to private businesses allow government to play favorites, creating great money-making opportunities for connected politicians. No wonder government growth is exploding at all levels.

State Auditor Pickering says one of the most abusive areas are high-risk interest rate swaps. These irresponsible balloon-note swaps always involve some huge fees to “financial advisers.” Such swaps caused Jefferson County (Birmingham) to file for bankruptcy. Ominously, Hinds County has been engaging in the same sorts of swaps.

One Hinds County insider told me this week, “They aren’t awarding multimillion dollar contracts to these guys without some benefit going to them.” All we have to add to that comment is . . . “duh!”

When the crony cash starts to literally fall from the pockets of the corrupt politicians, the FBI will eventually rear its sleepy head and take notice. Oh, but they’re part of the government too. I forget.