By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – The Office of the State Auditor won’t investigate allegations detailed in Tupelo’s ethics report, citing a lack of evidence in the report and from its author.
“We had no documentation provided that would warrant the opening of an investigation,” said Lisa Shoemaker, director of communications for the state agency.
“But what caused us to make the decision was that we were not able to validate the information contained in the report,” she said. “We interviewed the author of the report but were not provided with any sufficient information that would have allowed us to open an investigation.”
Shoemaker said the agency sent its decision in a letter to Mayor Ed Neelly on Wednesday.
Neelly, who had long criticized the study and its author, Cindy Brown of EthicsNow, told the Daily Journal on Thursday he was pleased.
“I think that this is sure and certain evidence that it is totally without foundation and was done by a person who was totally unqualified to do it who misrepresented her qualifications,” Neelly said. “This has not been good for our city by anybody’s measure.”
At least two City Council members expressed frustration and disappointment when they learned about the auditor’s decision.
Council President Berdell Jones and At-large Councilwoman Doyce Deas accused Brown of giving incomplete information to the state agency and botching any chances of an investigation.
“I’m just furious that she would leave us hanging like this because I know she has the information,” said Deas. “I would say we don’t pay her another dime. I don’t know why Cindy wouldn’t provide the information. I’m just flabbergasted.”
Brown, who has already received roughly $85,000 in taxpayer money, did not return a call for comment.
With the report out of the agency’s hands, it bounces back to the mayor and council. But a new term with new elected officials begins July 6, and many of them have said they’d like to close this contentious chapter in city history and move on.
“The ethics study experience was a disaster for the city,” said Mayor-elect Jack Reed Jr. in his response to a Daily Journal questionnaire in April. “Moving forward, in my administration, I will fully expect – and demand – the highest ethical standards in city hiring, and behavior by city employees, including myself.”
The report, issued Sept. 30, capped a nearly two-year study of the municipality’s employment and management practices that was launched after internal and external complaints.
It listed deficiencies across several city departments, and also alleged cases of illegal behavior. The most serious claims focused on the Police Department, Municipal Court and the mayor’s office.
Brown was the lead consultant and author of the report, but questions plagued her qualifications and credibility nearly from the start: She came under scrutiny for never revealing the identities of the more than 200 other government entities for which she claimed to have done similar studies; she also raised eyebrows for claiming someone had tapped her cell phone and that she was being followed while conducting her work here.
Despite the controversy, many council members thought the report revealed legitimate problems inside city government. They had hoped auditor officials would use Brown’s findings to conduct their own investigation.
The agency was given a full, unedited copy of the report in early October.
Shoemaker said investigators had thoroughly read the 133-page document and its numerous appendices. They also interviewed Brown for about three hours April 20, but she apparently didn’t provide them the information she had promised.
“I’m disappointed in the fact that she didn’t follow up like she said she would,” Jones said. “I’m not disappointed at the auditor’s office. I’m disappointed in her. She gave me her word that day that she would get the information to the auditors and get the paperwork to us.”
On the morning of Brown’s meeting with investigators, Jones delivered her $45,431 check for travel-related expenses she had incurred while working on the city’s ethics study.
Brown already had received about $40,000 from taxpayers prior to that, and is still owed $25,500 in contractual fees. She needs to return dozens of confidential records to the city before she gets the final payment, but Jones said it’s unlikely that will happen before the new council and mayor take office in July.
Passing on the issue
It’s unclear what will happen with the report now. Deas and Jones, both of whom are leaving office next month, said the issue will move to the next council and administration.
Of the nine council members serving today, only two will return at the start of the new term: Nettie Davis of Ward 4 supports the report and its author while Mike Bryan of Ward 6 does not.
Among the new members, several criticized the study in their responses to a Daily Journal questionnaire in April. But most seemed willing to correct any issues through an internal process.
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or firstname.lastname@example.org.