When are we ever going to wake up to the fact that the Republican establishment is corrupt and full of cronyism? New revelations out today about Stacey Pickering, the State Auditor, is eyebrow-raising, to say the least. As Geoff Pender details in the below article, Pickering’s office seems to be riddled with cronyism and corruption – no-bid contracts and lining the pockets of his friends. For a detailed analysis of the larger issue of no-bid contract thoroughout our state government, see another great article by Geoff Pender and Emily Le Coz, “State awards billions in no-bid contracts.” It seems that Mississippi has earned the title of “Most Corrupt State.”
But, sadly, this is not an isolated incident with the State Auditor. Let us not forget that Mr. Pickering was also held in contempt of court for withholding public records in the DMR scandal on the Coast. Who was he protecting in that incident? We’ve also got a major scandal with the Department of Corrections, where the feds had to bring the indictments, not the state. There’s also corruption on the local level, and not just in elections.
Yet despite all this, the State Auditor and the Attorney General have done nothing. If this doesn’t prove that the whole bunch needs to be sent home, then I guess nothing will. It’s time for a clean sweep in 2015! Let Public Corruption be the major issue from now until November!
By Geoff Pender, Clarion Ledger, December 20, 2014
In the fallout from the prisons’ bribery-kickback scandal, Gov. Phil Bryant said he will work with State Auditor Stacey Pickering to strengthen controls over contracts throughout state government.
But some of Pickering’s own contracts he approved for his agency raise questions and appear to mirror the government-wide potential problems with “no bid” contracts.
Staff or contractor?
In 2010, Pickering’s agency spokeswoman, Lisa Shoemaker, left her job to work on Steven Palazzo’s first (successful) campaign for Congress.
But instead of hiring someone to replace Shoemaker, who was making about $70,000 a year, Pickering hired Shoemaker under a no-bid contract at $60 an hour plus expenses to continue handling communications and media relations.
The initial contract was capped at $61,395 for nine months. But in July 2011, Pickering approved a new contract for up to $88,000 with Southern Strategies, a company Shoemaker created, for the same services.
In July 2012, Pickering approved another contract with Southern Strategies for up to $176,000 for Shoemaker to continue serving as the state auditor’s spokeswoman and press officer through June 2013.
Pickering said the contract ended when Shoemaker took a job as director of the Mississippi Cable Telecommunications Association in December 2013.
During her time under contract, Shoemaker appeared to continue to serve as the agency’s spokeswoman and media contact as she had while employed. She sent out press releases identifying herself as director of communications and serving as point-of-contact for the media at least through early December 2013. When asked in 2010 about her working on Palazzo’s campaign, she told media she was on leave from the auditor’s office while working on the campaign.
State law prohibits employees from working on campaigns during work hours or from taking leave at the expense of the agency to work on campaigns.
Pickering said Shoemaker has worked as a volunteer in his campaigns, on her own time, but not as a paid campaign worker as she did on Palazzo’s.
When Shoemaker left to work on Palazzo’s campaign, Pickering said he didn’t have anyone to handle public relations and media, so he hired her under contract. He said the agency did not supply her office space, which would violate IRS regulations, while she was a contract worker. He said the agency didn’t pay Shoemaker the total amounts for which the contract would have allowed.
“When she left our staff to go to work for Palazzo, we retained her on a contract basis,” Pickering said. “… Whether her or her company, (from late 2010) through January 2013, somewhere around $140,000 to $150,000 was the total paid out … That included travel and expenses. Her salary prior to that did not include that.”
Pickering has since hired a replacement to handle PR and media at a salary of $41,255, state records show.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Buck Clarke has questioned the state’s “revolving door” practice of employees leaving — particularly those who retire — then coming back under contract.
“You do question whether some of these are truly independent contractors,” Clarke said, talking in general, not specifically about the auditor’s office. “… You’re supposed to have multiple clients and not just go back and do the same job you did.”
Under the cap
Pickering, over about 21/2 years starting in July 2011 hired veteran Republican fundraiser and campaign adviser James H. Johnson, who is from Pickering’s hometown of Laurel, as a consultant.
Johnson, a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, served as deputy undersecretary of agriculture in Washington during the Reagan Administration, was a senior adviser on the Republican National Committee, and worked on the campaigns of former Gov. Haley Barbour and for Barbour’s D.C. lobbying firm.
Pickering’s initial contract with Johnson was for up to $31,200 for about five months, but it was amended several times. In September 2012, it was amended for up to $99,900. This contract would come just under the $100,000 cap, which would have required approval by the state Personal Services Contract Review Board.
Speaking in general and not about the auditor’s office, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said he questions state contracts that come just under the threshold for the Contract Review Board’s approval.
“If you see a contract at $99,000 and some change, you can’t help but wonder if it was negotiated at a level intentional to get below the threshold,” Reeves said. “That is skeptical and cynical, but it’s also perfectly rational.”
The auditor’s contracts with Johnson called for him to “provide advice and consulting assistance as may be necessary … to assist with special projects, provide strategic planning and local government services.” It also provided that Johnson “may be authorized to speak to civic clubs and other organizations on behalf of the auditor and OSA,” and that he would report directly to Pickering.
Pickering said Johnson was paid a total of $95,000 to $96,000 over about 21/2 years.
“That included mileage, expenses, salary, everything,” Pickering said.
Pickering said the main reason he hired Johnson was to work with “city halls and courthouses across the state” dealing with the local governments sending money to the state from traffic tickets.
“We had several local governments who were significantly behind or where we had seen big drops in the fees that come back to state government,” Pickering said. “No, (Johnson) did not audit them. He went in and said, this is the issue. He was more of a customer service followup. A portion of that was dealing with customer service, how is our audit working from the local perspective.
“(Johnson) was either unemployed or underemployed at the time, and he was somebody we didn’t have to bring up to speed or train,” Pickering said. “… He’s been in government most of his career and knows how it works on every level.”
Another no-bid contract Pickering approved was for advertising work for the auditor’s office in 2012 by the same Laurel firm that worked on Pickering’s 2011 campaign.
Pickering hired Roberts Creative Group of Laurel at $75 an hour, up to $5,175, to work on an ad campaign for the agency about public corruption. Pickering said the campaign, paid for with money recovered from public corruption busts, was in conjunction with a campaign the FBI was doing.
“The FBI paid for billboards, and we used special funds to pay for newspaper ads,” Pickering said.
The contract between the auditor’s office and Roberts Creative says the “contractors shall provide creative services and media purchase (with) SuperTalk — TeleSouth Communications.”
Campaign records show Pickering paid Roberts Creative more than $25,000 for his website for his 2011 campaign for state auditor.
Contact Geoff Pender at (601) 961-7266 or gpender@jackson. gannett.com. Follow @GeoffPender on Twitter.