The loneliest man in state government came to Greenwood for lunch on Tuesday.
Tom Hood, the executive director and chief counsel of the Mississippi Ethics Commission, leads the department that digs up the dirt on crooked or misinformed government officials when they violate state ethics laws or campaign finance laws or run contrary to the state’s open records and public meetings acts. Hood spoke to a joint meeting of the Rotary Club and Exchange Club at the Greenwood Country Club.
Hood told the clubs his office interprets and enforces the state laws that prohibit elected officials from receiving money from sources that could present a conflict of interest, investigates alleged violations of ethics laws by state and local government officials, and issues opinions on the state’s ethics laws.
A couple years ago, the Legislature turned over investigation into campaign finance law violations to the commission. Hood said the change was spurred by a Clarion Ledger investigation that questioned how candidates could spend campaign funds on such things as an $800 pair of boots, a camper trailer, a car for a daughter to take to college and groceries.
For money raised after January 2018, the Legislature has better defined what a valid campaign expenditure looks like and what falls outside the law. Now it’s Hood’s job to judge the quick and the dead on their campaign fund spending.
Hood said the state’s ethics laws boil down to resolution of conflicts between personal interests and public interests.
“The public policy section basically says, ‘Any time your personal interest comes into conflict with the public interest, the public always wins,’” he said. “There’s always a sacrifice in serving in government, and that encapsulates it in one paragraph.”
Ethical concerns are part of the original state constitution, adopted in 1890 and applying to board members and legislators, prohibiting them from having any interest in a contract that is funded or authorized by their board during their term in office and for a year after they leave office.
Hood said the laws have evolved to keep extended members of an elected official’s family from benefiting when they do not live in the same house and share expenses. That law would keep a school district from employing the child of a board member if the child lives in the same household. If the child lives separately, he can be employed, but the board member cannot vote on any action that could affect the child, such as a pay raise, Hood said.
The Ethics Commission receives and investigates complaints of a governing body violating the open meetings law and public records act, both designed to ensure that government agencies do business in front of the public. He said his agency, and every member of the public who is not an elected official should serve as a watchdog over how government officials do their business.
“The vast majority of violations we see are just unknowing,” he said. “It’s not that somebody was out to steal public funds or something. Ethics violations in themselves are not criminal; they’re civil violations, and we have administrative remedies like fines. But people don’t go to jail for these violations.” Hood said there is a set of statutes that deal with criminal public corruption to deal with those situations.
Hood said he’s not a big fan of government bodies using social media tools, such as Facebook and Twitter, to communicate with their community. Although the tools themselves may be effective in reaching people, they also generate comments and replies from the public. When these turn derogatory, problems can arise.
“Let’s say you post some notes about something — paving such-and-such streets. And somebody puts some nasty comment on there, ... that it’s favoritism and crookedness, or makes some nasty unfounded allegation. What if you go on there and delete it? Are you infringing their First Amendment rights?”
Hood said government bodies probably can’t delete posts without being sued, which also opens them to lawsuits concerning libelous content posted by another on their site.
Email has also caused problems for government officials when they trade emails, or are even just copied on an email, concerning something to come before the board. If they are considering in a private email exchange a matter of public business that should be conducted at a public meeting, they could be in violation of the state’s open meetings act, he said.
The same can apply to closed groups on Facebook, text messages, Facebook instant messenger, and other social media communication among board members, Hood said.
“It is a good way to send out information,” he said. “The problem is when members of the public start sending information back.” Facebook posts can also fall into the state Department of Archives and History requirements on how long public records must be kept by government bodies, he said, providing government agencies with other problems to solve.
•Contact Gavin Maliska at 581-7235 or firstname.lastname@example.org.