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Released February 21, 2003

By Christopher Mapp

HATTIESBURG - Without whistle-blowers, corruption often goes unchecked – festering outside of the public eye.

As evidenced in the recent corporate scandals that made Enron and WorldCom synonymous with unbridled greed, one person sometimes can help bring a vast network of corruption to its knees.

Such is the story of Carthage minister John Burgess, whose deep moral convictions led to widespread criminal convictions in the largest sting operation ever conducted by the FBI against local government corruption in Mississippi.

In his new book, titled Operation Pretense – The FBI's Sting on County Corruption in Mississippi, Dr. James Crockett, a University of Southern Mississippi professor of accountancy, details the fascinating story of how a Pentecostal preacher's tip led to the indictment of 57 county supervisors in 25 Mississippi counties in the late 1980s.

Written over the last five years and researched from a plethora of sources, this elaborate books aims "to tell the whole story of Operation Pretense in one place and to provide a record that might contribute to continuing reforms in county government," Crockett said.

Available in bookstores this month, the 300-plus page hardback is published by the University Press of Mississippi.

Operation Pretense began in 1984 when Burgess, part owner of a company that made road materials, informed the FBI that supervisors were demanding he pay a 10-percent kickback on county purchases. This information confirmed the bureau's long-held suspicions of county corruption and resulted in an undercover operation by the FBI and the U.S. attorneys' offices in Jackson and Oxford.

"The FBI and the U.S. attorneys had heard for years that county supervisors were taking kickbacks, and they secured permission from the Justice Department to undertake an investigation that would involve a sting," Crockett said. "The Rev. John Burgess's complaint to the FBI and his willingness to cooperate in the sting was like ‘manna from heaven,' according to one of the U.S. attorneys involved."

Creating a fake road materials company called "Mid-State Pipe" and using FBI agents as salesmen, the sting operation ensnared the corrupt officials in their own web of graft, greed and lies. All but two of the supervisors nabbed in the investigation eventually served time in jail.

Before Operation Pretense, county supervisors operated all of the daily functions in the state's 82 counties, except for schools, which allowed them to pilfer road money divided by the counties into the five separate areas called "beats." Each county has five districts and elects a supervisor for a four-year term.

After Operation Pretense exposed the extent of the corruption in the beat system, many counties in Mississippi, voting in a statewide referendum, replaced the beat system with a "unit" system that limits the supervisors' day-to-day management of county business. Instead, supervisors today decide policy while professional managers order, receive and pay for products and services purchased by the county.
Crockett became interested in Operation Pretense after he returned to Mississippi in 1987 to become the director of the School of Professional Accountancy at Southern Miss.

"The next month after I returned, Operation Pretense began unfolding in the media," he said. "Auditing is my academic specialty, and when I noted the Department of Audit's extensive cooperation with the FBI in the sting, it sparked my interest."

He followed Operation Pretense during the next two years, fascinated by what he learned about the extent of corruption in county government in his "beloved Mississippi," he said.

"The fact that so many elected officials routinely defrauded the taxpayers disturbed me greatly," Crockett said. "I determined that when my professional duties allowed me to give more time to research, I would write a book about Operation Pretense."

After sifting through hundreds of newspaper articles and court records, Crockett interviewed the major players in the sting, including FBI agents and U.S. attorneys. He also obtained volumes of transcripts from the FBI's sting using the Freedom of Information Act and drew from numerous publications related to county government, audit reports and even a segment of CBS' 60 Minutes about the investigation.

While some of the supervisors' corrupt activities border on farce – such as exchanging graft in public toilets – the subject is no laughing matter, Crockett said, especially since elected officials were stealing money from already cash-strapped counties.

"During the 1980s, Greene County, one of the poorest in the state, was almost bankrupt, but some of the supervisors were still taking kickbacks on county purchases," he said. "Greene County had a 22 percent unemployment rate in 1987."

So, in retrospect, were certain shady politicians drawn to the former system because it was corrupt, or did the system corrupt good politicians? Crockett said he thinks it was a little of both.

"There was indeed a ‘culture of corruption.' New supervisors learned how the game was played from experienced supervisors, and many could not resist the temptation," he said, adding that there were – and still are – many honest supervisors who never succumbed to the system.

"People in charge of the investigation told me that some of the supervisors they approached would not take the bait," Crockett said. "There were 353 Mississippi supervisors who were not indicted as a result of Operation Pretense."

A graduate of Mississippi State University, Crockett is a CPA who has also published a monograph and several articles in professional journals. He served as an internal auditor for 12 years and served as director of the School of Professional Accountancy at Southern Miss for 11 years.


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM