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WLOX Story on Development Commissioner Misses Important Facts
and Misleads the Public
Filed 11/18/03

by Keith Burton - GCN

Harrison County supervisors have no plans to rescind the appointment of Richard Bennett to the Harrison County Development Commission, despite a news report on WLOX television Tuesday evening.

The story on WLOX News Tuesday, November 18, reported that Supervisor Marlin Ladner’s step-nephew Richard Bennett had to return some $10,000 in money earned from his appointment to the HCDC because of a violation of the state’s nepotism law. But the WLOX story failed to include important information, that absent, could have been misleading.

Here’s the rest of the story.

The nepotism issue first came up this past summer as a result of a letter to the Attorney General from the development commission's attorney Henry Allen. In response, the AG issued an opinion in July of this year saying that Bennett’s appointment triggers a violation of the state’s nepotism law.

Allen’s request came several years after Bennett was appointed to the development commission's board by the Harrison County Board of Supervisors.

The supervisor’s attorney, Joe Meadows, had looked into the nepotism issue prior to Bennett’s unanimous approval in 2000.

The Sun Herald reported this in an article in July 25, 2003, when the nepotism issue surfaced.

“Meadows said he did not ask for an attorney general’s opinion before Bennett was appointed. However he did look at previous opinions and said Bennett’s appointment did not violate the law,” reads the article.

As there was some confusion over the issue, Bennett, who also serves as a Long Beach Alderman, sought a clarification of the July opinion from the Attorney Generals Office.

In a revised opinion issued to Bennett in August, the AG rescinded the previous July opinion that Bennett was in violation of the nepotism statute if he would decline any compensation for his service on the HCDC.

“It is our opinion that a member of the Harrison County Development Commission may decline to claim per diem compensation and reimbursement of expenses or any other type of compensation and, if he does so, will avoid a violation of the nepotism statute by the appointing authority. Our prior opinion to Harry Allen on this matter is withdrawn.” – Mike Lanford, Deputy Attorney General.

As Bennett had received compensation in the years prior to the issue being raised, he has properly returned the money. This act was portrayed in the WLOX story without noting the changes in the attorney general's opinion.

WLOX’s story also failed to note that there was no intention by Marlin Ladner, Richard Bennett, or anyone on the Board of Supervisors who voted unanimously for Bennett, to do anything improper.

In addition, there was no mention of the second attorney general’s opinion that rescinded the previous opinion if Bennett declined to receive compensation.

Both Bennett and Ladner are among several people, including District 5 Supervisor Connie Rockco, who believe the HCDC is an agency that needs reform. Bennett recently was the co-author in an article by another HCDC commissioner, Dr. Paige Gutierrez, who identified some problems within the agency.

But facing continuous resistance to reforms, Gutierrez resigned her appointment to the HCDC on October 28th saying the HCDC was being run improperly.

"I will not continue to serve as a Commissioner charged with oversight of this public agency, in which there is a lack of meaningful accountability, a disregard for lawful procedures, unnecessary secrecy, a disdain for public input and opinion, and wasteful spending of taxpayers' money.  Moreover, as a Commissioner who must vote on issues, I have learned that I cannot trust the information presented to me by staff,” Gutierrez said in a public statement on her resignation.

Regarding Tuesday’s WLOX story, Supervisor Marlin Ladner says he finds it strange that WLOX would run such a story, “At this late date.”  And that the story failed to show that Bennett had sought to resolve the issue.

“The Board has no intention of removing him. He has done a good job,” Ladner told GCN.

However Ladner says he understands that the story could be in response to Bennett's concerns over the operation of the HCDC.

In an earlier interview regarding how the HCDC is run, Bennett said the commission’s director, Michael Olivier treats people differently if they step out of line.

Gutierrez wrote in her first article in July about the treatment some commissioners receive.

"Those few who do not march lockstep may be subjected to tongue-lashings, ridicule, character assassination, gossip, attempts to have them removed from the commission, political opposition to the persons who appointed them, and/or reasons to fear if their employers are displeased," Gutierrez wrote.

Bennett told GCN more about this and his concerns in GCN’s special report “Slippery Business” saying, "I think it may happen to me."


Related:

Slippery Business - GCN Special Report


Full Opinion Letter to Bennett:

FROM MISSISSIPPI ATTORNEY GENERAL WEBSITE

August 22, 2003

Richard Bennett
Harrison County Development Commission
Re: Nepotism

Dear Mr. Bennett:

Attorney General Mike Moore has received your request for an official opinion and has assigned it to me for research and reply. Your letter asks us to "reconsider your opinion of July 18, 2003, concerning my position and make clear that I can service as Commissioner of the Harrison County Development Commission (HCDC) provided I waive all compensation of any kind."

In response and as you point out in your letter, the opinion to you does appear to conflict with our prior opinion to Ponthieux which stated that a school board member could elect to serve with no compensation and thereby avoid the nepotism statue. The statue governing your position states that each member of the Commission "shall receive per diem compensation". The statue regarding school board members states that each member shall either receive per diem compensation or may elect to receive an annual salary. We see no real difference between these two statues for the purposes of this analysis. We have several other prior opinions of this office regarding school board members which appear to go back to our March 11, 1992 opinion to James Chaney wherein we opined that a public officer "may decline to claim per diem".

On the other hand we have also addressed the ability of other types of officials to waive other types of compensation. For example, when asked whether a supervisor might waive his salary, we quoted Section 25-3-13 of the Code which states that the salaries of the members of the Board of Supervisors "are hereby fixed as full compensation for their services". We have also stated that the Director of Bureau of Narcotics may not waive his salary where the statute "fixes" his salary at a certain amount per annum. MS AG Op., Stringer (January 3, 2003).

Upon further consideration it is our opinion that statues allowing per diem compensation are distinguishable from statues fixing a salary for an office. It is our opinion that a member of the Harrison County Development Commission may decline to claim per diem compensation and reimbursement of expenses or any other type of compensation, and, if he does so, will avoid a violation of the nepotism statute by the appointing authority. Our prior opinion to Harry Allen on this matter is withdrawn.

Very truly yours,

MIKE MOORE, ATTORNEY GENERAL

Mike Lanford

Deputy Attorney General

cc: Mr. Harry Allen

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