January 17, 2021

Ex-prisons leaders destroyed records, auditor says; ‘We don’t know what else happened’

Former Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall and her administration mishandled thousands of dollars in public funds, according to a report the state auditor’s office released on Thursday.

The 31-page compliance report was requested by current MDOC Commissioner Burl Cain and Gov. Tate Reeves, who has publicly alluded to prior corruption within the agency. It audits MDOC for the period of July 1, 2017 to Dec. 31, 2019, revealing hundreds of thousands of dollars spent in illegal comp time buyouts and thousands of dollars spent in improper travel reimbursements.

The report also shows previous MDOC leadership spent thousands to upgrade the executive suite as well as thousands of dollars in purchases of massage chairs, rugs, art and Himalayan salt lamps for meditation rooms at MDOC facilities.

“One of the most disconcerting things is that a lot of the misspending seems to stem from decisions that were made at the top of MDOC under the previous commissioner, and a lot of the spending seems to have benefitted people at the top at MDOC,” State Auditor Shad White said in a teleconference Thursday. “So, that’s one of the first things we noticed when we were doing this audit.”

When the auditor’s office questioned agency personnel, it was revealed that, under previous leadership, MDOC “accidentally destroyed records,” ultimately “destroying evidence” that would have otherwise been accessed for the audit, according to the report.

“Additionally, the agency was unable to provide some records to the auditors when requested due to the agency destroying audit documentation and public records,” the report said. “Inquiry with agency personnel revealed that the agency accidently (sic) destroyed records relating to procurement cards, purchasing, cash receipts, and other vital financial processes during the move from one physical office space to another.

“Personnel stated that some records were marked for destruction and should have been moved to a truck housing items that were to be “burned” or destroyed,” the report continued. “However, agency personnel mistakenly moved public records and vital accounting records to the “burn” truck; thereby destroying evidence of many purchases, approvals, and audit evidence.”

“That’s one of the more troubling findings because what you see in the audit is what we were able to uncover, right. But if we know that records have been burned, we don’t know what else happened at the agency,” White said in Thursday’s teleconference.

The report said former MDOC Commissioner Pelicia Hall was paid an illegal buyout of $109,446, and the former Deputy Commissioner of Institutions Jerry Williams was paid $240,497 in buyouts, including one payment of $160,000 in July 2017.

Current MDOC Parole Board Member Betty Lou Jones was also found to have received $47,321 in travel reimbursements, a matter that has been turned over to the investigative division of the Office of the State Auditor for possible civil demand, the report said.

Hall and Williams both left their posts as heads of the department in January 2020 and are currently receiving pensions from the state of Mississippi, which have been “artificially inflated” due to the illegal buyouts detailed in the audit report.

“We have forwarded this audit over to (the investigative division), and now they’re going to begin their side of the work to see if anything in here is criminal,” White said in the teleconference. “Yes, it is possible that some stuff in here is criminal. That is going to be a decision that we’re going to have to make through the investigative division as we look closer at evidence of intent.”

The audit report also investigated MDOC’s contract with commissary services company Premier Supply Link, LLC, revealing that the department had given the company the financial authority over restitution funds, resulting in one restitution center prisoner who earned $1,345.20 in excess of what was required while being a part of a restitution center.

In January 2020, Mississippi Today published the results of a 14-month investigation in collaboration with The Marshall Project which found inmates in Mississippi’s little-known restitution centers must work grueling low-wage jobs to pay off court-ordered debts. The investigation also revealed that the state fails to keep accurate records on who is in the program at any given time, how many people judges send there each year or how long inmates stay.

“Incarcerated people are sometimes held at restitution centers while they work to pay back money they owe as a result of judgments against them. Inmates should have been informed when they worked enough to fully repay what they owe, but the audit revealed MDOC was not verifying the amounts that inmates had paid so the inmate could cease work,” White said in Thursday’s teleconference.

White also said his office has begun an investigation into MDOC and Management & Training Corporation, which operates three prisons in the state. A recent investigation revealed that MTC routinely failed to fill scores of correctional officer positions required by contract. These “ghost workers” make prisons more dangerous and produce more profits for MTC—at least $8 million, according to an analysis by The Marshall Project.

“Based on some of the facts we saw in your report, we are investigating,” White said Thursday.

In a five-page response, Cain, current MDOC commissioner who was appointed to the position by Reeves in May, said the department concurred with or acknowledged all the audit report’s findings.

“MDOC has worked tirelessly since February to address and has already corrected many of the findings stated in your report. MDOC has established its new vision as an honorable, innovative and fiscally responsible professional organization,” Cain wrote in his response.

View the full compliance report here.

By Brittany Brown, Mississippi Today.