The chairman of the Mississippi Blues Commission agrees with the state auditor that it may be time to dissolve the public entity and turn its mission of promoting the state’s blues musical heritage over to a private, nonprofit organization.

J. Kempf Poole told the Jackson Clarion Ledger that the commission is now mostly in “maintenance mode,” having accomplished most of its goals in erecting more than 200 Mississipi Blues Trail markers. “The mission is essentially accomplished,” he said.

Poole’s comments came in response to a highly critical performance audit, released Thursday by State Auditor Shad White, that 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.

White emphasized, though, that there was no evidence of criminal misconduct. Rather the problems uncovered in the audit were the result of allegedly sloppy accounting and failing to follow the state’s purchasing guidelines.

Also among the audit’s 17 findings was that the Blues Commission erred by treating Greenwood ad agency Hammons & Associates as a “sole source provider,” thus relieving the commission from seeking competitive bids on the work Hammons performed. The ad agency has been responsible for the design and production of the historic markers as well as the Blues Trail’s website, smartphone app, maps and other collateral pieces. It also produced a series of 16 films about the trail.

Hammons has been by far the commission’s largest vendor, receiving a little more than $1 million over the 13 years since the Legislature created the Blues Commission in 2006.

Poole told the Jackson newspaper that many of the auditor’s findings were “news to me.” He said he and several other commissioners on the 18-member panel  realized there could be accounting issues and requested that the State Auditor’s Office examine the commission about three years ago. White was appointed state auditor in July 2018 by Gov. Phil Bryant after Stacey Pickering resigned to become head of the Mississippi Veterans Affairs Board. “We were asking for help,” Poole was quoted as saying. “We were not equipped to find these sorts of things.”

Poole said he concurred with White’s suggestion to move the commission’s responsibilities to the Mississipi Blues Foundation, a private nonprofit that has financially supported the commission’s work.

Senate Tourism Committee Chairwoman Lydia Chassaniol, R-Winona, is a member of the commission as well. She did not return calls Thursday or Friday seeking comment.

The audit, the first ever performed on the commission, was particularly critical of the accounting practices of Delta State University,  which has been the commission’s “interim fiscal agent” from the start. The report said the university 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 commission.

The university took exception to those findings.

In a statement provided to the Clarion Ledger, DSU Provost Charles McAdams said he was “puzzled” by the audit’s criticism. The university “provided all the documentation” auditors requested and never heard from them again, he said. “Delta State University remains able and eager to provide any documentation and can more than adequately respond to any concern,” McAdams said.

He said the university regularly reported to the commission and always followed purchasing requirements.

The university, according to the audit, had received $38,803 through Oct. 3, 2018, for managing the commission’s funds.

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

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