By Ryan S. Walters | @ryanswalters73
Rumors fly in politics. Anyone involved in it knows that. But the rumors involving State Auditor Stacey Pickering are more than just juicy gossip; they are, in fact, true and worthy of examination, given his current contested race for a third term.
In recent weeks we have heard the rumors that Pickering is having some serious issues with his campaign finances – not with raising money but how he spends it – and may be under investigation by the FBI. It has been confirmed, by Geoff Pender of the Clarion Ledger as well as those of us here at MCD, where we have been looking at this stuff independently of Pender, that these are no longer mere rumors: The FBI is, in fact, looking into Pickering’s campaign financing.
And the evidence against the State Auditor seems to be pretty overwhelming, as Pender also pointed out.
According to Pickering’s own campaign reports, he has some very questionable spending habits, to put it mildly. And keep in mind this is a state official whose job it is to make sure public funds are spent correctly and not stolen.
His most eye-opening campaign expenses are:
– In May 2014, a $3,081.60 expenditure to the Laurel Overhead Door Company labeled a “campaign expense.” This was either a campaign event or he bought a garage door for himself or someone else. A very strange item on a campaign finance report, which he now says is for his family’s security.
– In June 2011, a $8,900 payment to Tiffany Parrish, a former staff member from the 2007 campaign, for a “fundraising fee expense.” This is the only payment to Parrish during the 2011 campaign. The car, a white BMW, was given to Pickering’s daughter. This would be very hard to justify as a legitimate campaign expense. See a copy of the check here: BMW check
As Pender pointed out, if you notice the back glass of the car in question, in the lower right hand corner, you will see a sorority sticker – Kappa Delta. Not exactly a campaign advertisement, even though Pickering now says that is what it was purchased for.
– In 2012, there was a grand total of $50,028.41 in “travel expenses,” including several payments totaling $16,231.11 in “travel, cellular, and postage expenses” paid to “Stacey Pickering” (including one lump payment of $8,256.82); a separate $9,850.41 payment to Pickering’s wife; and $15,532.61 to American Express, all marked “travel expenses.” Regions Bank was also paid $8,414.28 for “travel expenses.” So more than $50k in one year, which is certainly a lot of travel, cell phone calls, and postage stamps, especially in a non-campaign year.
– In 2013, Pickering also paid himself $23,198.46 in travel reimbursements; another $5,828.17 in “travel expenses” to American Express; a $2,687.86 payment for “travel expenses” to Community Bank; and $8,434.28 in “travel expenses” to Regions Bank. The total for 2013 was $40,148.77 in “travel expenses” for Pickering’s campaign, when, again, there was no campaign to run. And if you notice, many of these “expenses” were in the exact same amounts.
– In 2014, the campaign paid out $45,459.81 in “travel expenses” to American Express, Regions Bank, Community Bank, and to Stacey Pickering. Again, no campaign for Pickering that year.
Reimbursements for travel expenses, even for personal credit card payments, is not unheard of in political campaigns but big time operations generally have their own credit cards and don’t make use of personal ones.
And again we must ask, why would Pickering’s campaign rack up $135,000+ in travel expenses in three years when there was no campaign of his own during that time period? Did he have pertinent campaign events in Honolulu and Tahiti every other week? Was he taking his campaign RV, which there is also questions about, to Orlando to do a little “campaigning” down there?
Of course there is always the remote possibility that these are legitimate campaign expenses, given a reasonable explanation, not what he has since provided. But my gut instinct, and given Mississippi’s status as the “most corrupt state” in the Union, and given the fact that the Establishment believes they don’t have to play by the same rules as everyone else, and given the fact that the FBI is looking into all this, tells me this stinks to high heaven.
Were these disbursements really personal expenses hidden within the campaign under false vouchers and receipts? Are the payments to banks really to pay notes on personal bank loans?
Diverting campaign funds for personal use is illegal, in violation of IRS regulations. Simply put, when a candidate diverts an amount from a political organization for personal use, that money becomes taxable income. Any amount not reported is textbook tax evasion, both state and federal. Other federal code violations are implicated as well, including wire fraud and mail fraud, and anyone who assists with such an endeavor could be charged with conspiracy.
And charges for these types of violations are common. Former Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. just finished a stint of more than a year in federal prison for that very thing, as did his wife.
As bad as it seems, though, perhaps we could give Mr. Pickering the benefit of the doubt, IF he had a clean nose. But he doesn’t. Let us not forget his trouble with the court down on the Coast, where he was held in contempt for withholding records from the Sun Herald in the DMR scandal case. Who was he protecting? The Barbours? It’s a possibility, given the fact that Austin Barbour is currently raising money for Pickering’s campaign. Or was there some other crony he needed to protect?
He has also been criticized for approving “no bid” contracts for work in the State Auditor’s office, which always smacks of corruption; making personal use of a state-owned vehicle, and denying it while going after other state officials for doing the very same thing; and conflicts of interest in his fundraising, specifically attending a fundraiser at the home of friends of those charged in the DMR scandal. So does that explain his withholding of DMR records?
These are all serious allegations and are enough in my mind to ask for a serious explanation from the State Auditor. And if he can’t provide the appropriate clarifications, and it doesn’t seem as though he has thus far, then Stacey Pickering should drop out of the race.
His official position, the State Auditor, is dedicated to cleaning up public corruption. We don’t need someone in such an important office with the least bit of questions about his own finances and that of his campaign, not to mention his other troubles.
Now that we know for sure that the FBI is snooping around, how can he continue a campaign to stay in office? What if Pickering wins the primary, now less than two weeks away, then something big breaks in the investigation and charges are filed? It’s simply not right for him to continue at this point.
Stacey Pickering owes it to the people of Mississippi to adequately explain these things, free of politics, or withdraw from the race.
Mississippi has had enough corruption in the last few years to last a lifetime.