Deterring Theft of Taxpayer Funds is Critical

December 17, 2021

In 2015, the University of Illinois-Chicago released a study that ranked states by the number of per capita public corruption convictions. Mississippi ranked number two. The year before, we held the top spot. Granted, the study counted convictions, and we would rather convict white-collar criminals than not convict them. But the rankings put us in the same league as some states notorious for corruption. Louisiana and Illinois were also in the top ten.

Why does Mississippi rank near the top, and what can be done about it? My training as a Certified Fraud Examiner tells me that small government offices—offices with less than 100 employees—are more likely to fall victim to fraud than large government offices. The reason is large offices have lots of eyeballs, along with more accountants, auditors, and lawyers, to watch the spending. Small offices may have one or two employees handling all their finances with little oversight. This is also why small offices lose more money per instance of fraud than large offices.

The classic example of this problem is Dixon, Illinois. Dixon is a town smaller than Greenville, Mississippi, but it was home to the largest municipal embezzlement case in U.S. history.

Think about that. The largest municipal embezzlement didn’t happen in Chicago or New York. It happened in Dixon. Dixon’s treasurer stole more than $53 million from them. She was able to abscond with so much because she had nearly unilateral control over the town’s accounts.

Mississippi has a ton of small government offices like Dixon. We have small state agencies, small city governments, and small counties. They are spread over a fairly large geographic area. A small number of people handle the cash in those offices. Watching every dollar in every corner of the state is difficult.

In other words, we have an ecosystem primed to create corruption.

Given that situation, how do we stop fraud and embezzlement of taxpayer funds? The FBI and the Office of the State Auditor—the two of the primary law enforcement offices designed to investigate public corruption—are not going to shrink Mississippi’s geography or consolidate government offices. And if we simply do our jobs as well as the other public corruption investigators in other states, Mississippi will never make up ground.

This is why, when I became State Auditor, I challenged the staff to take a new approach. We needed to do a better job of deterring public corruption in the first place. And the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners will tell you that one of the best ways to deter crime is to increase the perception of detection. Put differently, we need to make crooks feel like there’s a good chance they’ll be caught.

This is one of the biggest reasons my office publicizes our findings when we discover wrongdoing. We post the results of our audits online. We put the mugshots of embezzlers on social media. We tell the world when an investigation leads to a conviction.

We do this because we want people stealing public money to think twice about whether they want to keep stealing. They need to know we’re watching.

We also do it because it lets taxpayers know where they can go if they see evidence of public funds being stolen. Not long ago, I gave a speech to a group on the coast about our recent cases. After the speech, a person came to me and provided information—a tip—on potential embezzlement. She said, “I never knew where to take something like this or who could put a stop to corruption.” Her tip led to the arrest and conviction of former Moss Point Mayor Mario King.

Taxpayers also need to know we get results: this past month, we issued the largest demand in the history of the Office of the State Auditor. Last year, we identified four times as much misspending as we did in the year prior. Our cases have resulted in hundreds of years of prison time for perpetrators during my tenure as Auditor. We have also recovered millions.

Some folks don’t like my approach. I was told once the only thing I was doing by telling the world about a conviction was embarrassing the person who was found guilty. But that’s not true. I’m not embarrassing them; they’ve embarrassed themselves by stealing from you. I don’t have time to worry about the feelings of someone who took money that didn’t belong to them. If we’re going to make up ground in public corruption rankings, it’s my responsibility to be aggressive in stopping fraud. Deterrence is a critical part of the game plan for getting there.

Shad White is the 42nd State Auditor of Mississippi