By The Associated Press
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Former Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson billed Mississippi taxpayers $409 for a 2009 dinner at Miko’s at the Pearl River Resort, listing state Rep. Bennett Malone, state Sen. Billy Hewes and Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney as meeting with him for a Department of Public Safety “Budget Priorities Dinner Meeting.”
Malone, Hewes and Chaney all told The Clarion-Ledger they did not eat at Miko’s with Simpson, nor did he pay for their meals.
Simpson responded that the meeting indeed occurred and legitimate state business took place.
It’s the latest revelation in a campaign for attorney general in which Simpson, a Republican, is seeking to unseat Democrat Jim Hood.
Simpson spokesman Scott Paradise said because the event took place two years ago, “the details are getting lost. Steve maintains this was absolutely a work function.”
Hood said these documents and other travel expenses convince him Simpson “abused his office” as public safety commissioner.
Paradise said he found it ironic that such criticisms are “coming from a guy who spends thousands on a trip to Disney World. It’s unfortunate it’s gotten to this point. We wanted to talk about big issues, and Jim Hood didn’t want to.”
Documents show taxpayers paid $2,647 for Hood’s six-day Evidence for Prosecutors Conference held at Disney World. The money included meals, lodging and transportation.
Taxpayers also reimbursed Hood $1,351 for a May 2009 trip to Philadelphia, Pa., where he was a presenter at a training conference for the National Association of Attorneys General titled “Protecting and Empowering Our Next Generation.” Hood stayed at the Ritz Carlton, where the conference was held.
Simpson’s campaign questioned Hood’s spending on his 2004 trip to Washington, D.C., where he stayed at the Hyatt Regency, which cost $259 for the night. He had traveled to the nation’s capital to the NAAG office for a moot court argument there.
Hood said each of the trips were legitimate and showed notes he took at the conference in Orlando.
“I’m not in court every day, and I want to keep my skills sharp,” he said.
Two years ago when Simpson filed an expense report for the dinner, he included an agenda for a July 30, 2009, dinner meeting with Malone, Chaney and Hewes, whose name was misspelled. The agenda listed these items: “Overview of DPS’s Budget Priorities,” ”Discussion of Other Legislative Matters Affecting DPS,” ”Questions and Answers” and “Final Remarks.”
Simpson acknowledges the date on the agenda should have been July 29, 2009.
In a statement through his wife, Malone said he wasn’t at the dinner with Simpson.
Hewes and Chaney said they did talk that night with Simpson at the Y’all Politics dinner at the Silver Star Casino. Chaney estimated there were 70 or 80 people there.
Chaney said he spoke for four or five minutes to Simpson at that dinner. Hewes said he sat by Simpson for a couple of hours and that they talked about many subjects, including DPS.
Chaney said as he left, he saw Simpson with Bill Maxey, then-director of fleet for DPS, walking into Miko’s with some other people. Chaney said he did not stay with them.
Simpson said the budget priorities dinner did take place and that it was not the Y’all Politics dinner.
Simpson said he doesn’t recall details of the meeting, but said he does recall Malone being there. He said he had been talking with Chaney about troopers having real-time verification of drivers’ insurance.
Chaney confirmed he and Simpson discussed this.
“I paid for my own meal,” Chaney said. “I tell my employees when they go to the Neshoba County (Fair), they can’t do it on official time. If somebody goes, they have to take a day off. You don’t want a sense of impropriety.”
The use and alleged misuse of taxpayers’ dollars has been a common complaint by both candidates.
During the 33 months Simpson served as public safety commissioner he spent more than $99,000 in travel expenses, said Hood, who said he spent $45,951 during that same time. As a leader in NAAG, he said he is required to attend meetings across the country.
Hood questioned the 2008, 2009 and 2010 trips Simpson took as public safety commissioner to the Mississippi State Bar Association Convention, charging taxpayers a total of $5,308.
Simpson responded that Hood attended these bar conventions, too.
“I think every lawyer who is a state employee does that,” he said. “We are required to do continuing legal education hours, and I did my hours at the convention.”
Hood said he attended these conventions because he was asked to speak. Hood said it’s fine if Simpson wants to attend the bar convention but Hood said taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill.