The special audit is part of a bigger fight in Mississippi

Published 7:00 am Saturday, July 30, 2016

Earlier this year, the Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to hire an independent accounting firm to conduct a special audit of files kept by the former Chancery Clerk David Earl Johnson. These files were originally withheld from the current Chancery Clerk Melinda Bowman, in violation of state law, and it became clear that they had never been included in official county audits, despite containing financial records of multiple accounts containing county funds. This special audit was requested by Bowman, who was concerned about possible misuse of funds due to other improprieties she had discovered upon taking office. Unfortunately, since that vote, several county officials have worked to undermine the effort to ensure that these records are consistent with those kept in official county systems.
It is disappointing that County Attorney Joe Montgomery has joined with the minority of people fighting transparency. As the Board’s legal counsel, it should be Montgomery’s job to use his expertise to enable the Board to carry out the county’s business. Instead, his letter to the Attorney General’s office misportrayed the situation as one in which the Board is attempting to replace the Chancery Clerk with a private accountant, when in fact this audit is being done at the request of the Chancery Clerk. The legal references cited in his letter similarly ignore precedent supporting the Board’s decision.
The response from the Attorney General relies primarily on a prior opinion rendered in 1934, stating that “the Board is without authority to employ and pay public funds to any other auditor” than the Chancery Clerk and State Auditor. However, in 1986, the Mississippi Code was updated with §19-3-69, which states that the board may “contract with certain professionals when the board determines that such professional services are necessary and in the best interest of the county” and specifically lists certified accountants among these professionals. The Attorney General’s office even clarified that this does in fact authorize the Board to hire accountants to conduct financial audits of county records (Hagwood Dec. 16, 1992, A.G. Op. #92-0949).
This opinion was actually listed in the notes on §19-3-69 (the very first item in the A.G. Op. section, no less), the full text of which was included and cited in Montgomery’s letter to the Attorney General. In the letter, Montgomery said, “I cannot locate any authority for the Board of Supervisors to hire an independent C.P.A. to perform financial audits.” If this is true, then it is somewhat concerning that the Board Attorney overlooked opinion number 92-0949 despite it being so easily found by someone as inexperienced as I. If he was aware of the opinion and chose not to mention it, that is even more concerning.
There is a fight taking place in Pearl River County, and this audit is merely the tip of the iceberg. Mississippi is consistently ranked in the top 10 most corrupt states. Our infamous “good ole’ boy” system has undermined the reputation of those who genuinely want to improve the world through public service. If we wish to wash the mud off Mississippi’s name, then we must be proactive in investigating and eliminating corruption. Citizens have the moral duty to oversee and govern those we have elected to serve us, and if we fail to do so, then we invite our own abuse. I have no grudge against Johnson. It is my hope that his name will be cleared by this audit. But the audit must take place.
I urge everyone to contact their County Supervisor and demand that this investigation take place.

By Tavish Kelly
Tavish is a State Chair of Young Americans for Liberty.

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