Blues Trail marker

This Mississippi Blues Trail marker in Baptist Town tells the story of Robert Johnson and Honeyboy Edwards, two blues players who performed in one of Greenwood’s oldest African American neighborhoods in the 1930s.

Mississippi’s state auditor is heavily criticizing the spending practices of the state’s 13-year-old Blues Commission, including its arrangement with Greenwood advertising agency Hammons & Associates.

Shad White, in a performance audit released Thursday, said the commission paid out nearly $2 million to vendors without a valid contract on file and failed to retain documentation to support almost another $1 million in spending.

“Nearly every penny they’ve ever spent has had some type of abnormality associated with it,” said Logan Reeves, a spokesman in the State Auditor’s Office.

The problems have prompted White to recommend that the Legislature abolish the commission and move its

responsibilities to the Mississippi Blues Foundation, a private, nonprofit organization that has contributed financially to the commission.

“I want to be clear that we saw no evidence of embezzlement, fraud or any other criminal violations when we performed this study,” White said in a prepared statement. “It’s also clear the Blues Commission has done the work that the Legislature asked it to do, which is putting up markers to promote the blues around Mississippi. But it should also be clear that there are significant documentation issues that exist at the Commission.”

The commission was created in 2006 to tout the state’s contributions to blues music. Its main thrust has been to place informative markers in and around historical blues sites, mostly in Mississippi but also at several locations outside of the state. In all, more than 200 Blues Trail markers have been placed so far, including nine in Leflore County.

The audit, the first ever done on the Blues Commission, said the commission had received since its inception $2.9 million in funding, mostly in the form of state and federal grants and private donations. At the time the audit was completed in August, the commission had a remaining balance of about $64,000.

The audit said Delta State University, which has been the commission’s “interim fiscal agent” from the start, issued most of its payments without first seeking approval from the commission and could not produce the paperwork to support $964,835 in expenditures. The state auditor recommends that the university be ordered to repay the money if it can’t provide an appropriate explanation for the spending.

It also said Delta State should repay $12,450 of commission funds it used to pay a portion of the salary of a former executive director of the university’s Delta Center, since the university employee was prohibited from receiving commission funds while also sitting on the 18-member commission.

The audit also found that the Blues Commission had spent $1.9 million with some 72 vendors but had no contracts to validate the expenditures.

By far, the commission’s largest vendor has been Hammons & Associates.

The Greenwood ad agency has received a little more than $1 million as the Blues Trail project’s coordinator. It has been responsible for the design and production of the distinctive dark blue markers as well as the Blues Trail’s website, smartphone app, maps and other collateral pieces. Hammons also produced a series of 16 films about the trail.

The audit questioned the commission’s treatment of Hammons as a “sole source provider,” thus relieving the body of seeking competitive bids on the work the ad agency performed. The audit said it found no evidence to support Hammons’ contention that it should be treated as a sole source provider. It also said that the commission failed to obtain approval from the state Office of Purchasing, Travel and Fleet Management, as required by law, for the expenditures it made with Hammons or with the other vendors — Sewah Studios, the Marietta, Ohio, foundry that manufactures the markers, and blues historians Scott Barretta of Greenwood and Jim O’Neal of Kansas City, Missouri — the commission treated as sole source vendors.

The auditor’s report recommends that the commission suspend its arrangement with Hammons, re-evaluate its arrangement with the two historians and open all of the services they provided to competitive bidding.

Allan Hammons, president of Hammons & Associates, said, after reviewing the audit Thursday, that he wanted to underscore the state auditor’s comment that the study found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

“That certainly provides a comfort factor for me,” he said. “I’m confident that everything we did was over and above board.”

Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or tkalich@gwcommonwealth.com.

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