Mississippi received a “D-” in the latest state integrity investigation conducted by the Center for Public Integrity. This score placed the state of Mississippi at 33 out of 50 states.
The State Integrity Investigation is a data-driven assessment of state government accountability and transparency that is conducted by Global Integrity and the Center for Public Integrity.
In the 2015 investigation, Mississippi earned a score of 61, a major drop from their 2012 score of 79, or C+.
The political candidates in Mississippi are free to raise unlimited sums of money and spend it largely as they choose. The legislative and judicial branches were largely exempt from the state’s open records law, and the state ethics commission rarely used its power to investigate public officials.
This led to the state government being plagued by a series of scandals, the most notable being the former Department of Corrections commissioner, Christopher Epps, who pleaded guilty in February to charges of corruption. Epps had accepted $2 million over eight years in exchange for directing hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts to private businesses.
The state’s lowest score was in the political financing category, which was last compared to other states’ scores in this category.
According to the report, the low score came from state auditor Stacey Pickering’s actions. The report said that between 2007 and 2014, Pickering used campaign funds to purchase an RV, a garage door and $136,000 in non-itemized campaign travel reimbursement fees over three non-election years.
Though federal investigators are looking into whether these purchases were illegal, there are no state laws preventing a candidate from using campaign funds for personal reasons.
The Mississippi Ethics Commission has broad authority to start investigations and hold political figures accountable, but followers of state politics say the agency does not appear to aggressively exercise those powers.
The commission did provide the State Integrity Investigation with a record of cases litigated since 2013, which listed only five and did not specify what the violations were.
Commission executive director Tom Hood said there could be other cases it did not provide.
“It’s the best the investigative assistant could do,” Hood said. Curtis Wilkie, veteran reporter at the University of Mississippi’s Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics, tried to explain why the state government is in such bad condition.
“I think because of its conservative nature that this state is naturally not going to reveal a lot of the things that go on in its government,” Wilkie said.
Wilkie also commented on the effectiveness of agencies created to keep public officials from violating the law.
“They’re all pretty toothless,” Wilkie said. “They really don’t do much. I don’t look to them for deliverance.”