- Without whistle-blowers, corruption often goes unchecked
festering outside of the public eye.
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
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.
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.
bookstores this month, the 300-plus page hardback is published by
the University Press of Mississippi.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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