Mississippi’s Department of Corrections decided a couple of years ago that its employees just needed to meditate some to lower the stress of their job. To put them in the mood, MDOC bought a truckload of massage chairs, Himalayan salt lamps and other accoutrements.
If State Auditor Shad White’s report on the chronically troubled agency is correct, former Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall did a lot of her meditating over how to rip off the taxpayers.
Last week, White released his second bombshell of the year when he said that under Hall’s leadership, MDOC misspent millions of dollars, including over $100,000 that benefited Hall personally.
The 31-page report was the result of an audit requested by the current corrections commissioner, Burl Cain.
The corrections veteran is obviously a smart man, despite his controversial past in the Louisiana corrections system. He knew he was coming into a mess when he was hired by Gov. Tate Reeves. And he knew he better have an audit done so that he didn’t get blamed for what occurred before he took charge.
What Hall is accused of does not rise to the level of malfeasance that landed Chris Epps in prison. Still, it’s pretty bad if true.
Two years before she was promoted to corrections commissioner, Hall was informed of the agency’s options for dealing with the situation when employees work more than their scheduled hours.
State law, several advisory opinions from the Attorney General’s Office and the guidelines of the state Personnel Board are all in agreement: It is forbidden to boost state employees’ compensation by paying them lump sums for so-called compensatory time.
Under the rules, some MDOC employees, such as prison guards, would qualify for paid overtime if they spend at least 80% of the work week supervising inmates. Others might earn comp time that they can take later as paid time off. But no one is supposed to be able to accumulate comp time that is then paid out in large chunks of money.
Yet, that is allegedly what Hall approved — more than $10 million worth over a 2½-year period — and tried to hide by allowing the comp time to be misclassified as something else.
Hall, according to the state auditor, was one of the largest beneficiaries of these illegal payouts, receiving nearly $110,000 that both boosted her bank account immediately and raised her future pension benefits. Her top lieutenant got nearly a quarter-million dollars of extra pay during Hall’s tenure, including one lump sum of $160,000 months after Hall was named corrections commissioner by then Gov. Phil Bryant.
White has done a good job, if unintentionally, of tarnishing the legacy of the governor who first made him state auditor.
When Bryant left office after two terms, it was said that his tenure was largely free of scandal, other than the bribery case against Epps, whom Bryant inherited as corrections commissioner. In less than a year since Bryant has been out of office, though, two of his key appointments have been accused of severe financial misconduct.
White’s work with prosecutors resulted earlier this year in a half-dozen indictments, including that of John Davis, the former head of the state’s welfare agency, in what has been described as the largest embezzlement of public funds in Mississippi history.
Bryant, after being alerted of possible malfeasance at the Department of Human Services, turned that case over to White. Not so with the Department of Corrections. The latter investigation was initiated after Bryant left office.
Some of Mississippi’s prisons are in terrible physical condition and are dangerously understaffed. Hall and others have blamed the situation on insufficient funding from the Legislature.
The problem, as the audit makes clear, may be just as much about how the money has been spent. While inmates live in squalor, MDOC is buying massage chairs and ion-emitting lamps. While prison guards can’t make a living wage, highly paid prison officials are further enriching themselves with compensation to which they are not entitled.
Kudos to White for exposing the disgrace.