This year, at my request, the Legislature passed and the Governor signed a new law that toughens the penalties on people who steal taxpayer dollars. I want to thank them for their wisdom in passing that law.
First, a bit of background. In my three years as State Auditor, I have seen cases where individuals who have stolen taxpayer money have acknowledged their guilt, only to have the courts slap them on the wrist and effectively wipe their records clean.
For example, before I was State Auditor, the Auditor’s office investigated a principal at a public school in a struggling area of the state. Our investigators found that the principal embezzled thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment, including a wide variety of electronics. He was given a demand for over $100,000, and he admitted guilt.
But after he pleaded guilty, the judge in that case used a procedure to effectively wipe the principal’s record clean. A few short years later, the principal had moved across the state and was elected school superintendent of an entire school district. He was effectively given a promotion. He then ran the school district into the ground, the district stopped submitting audits to our office, and the state had to take over the district.
This has to stop. One way courts have wiped the records of defendants clean is through a process called pre-trial diversion. Defendants are given the chance to avoid charges or have their charges dismissed if they agree to certain conditions.
For individuals accused of stealing a large amount of taxpayer dollars, pre-trial diversion is not appropriate. Embezzlers should be held accountable for what they did. The taxpayers should know that they are not helpless victims, and that there are consequences for stealing from them. And people should be able to see those charges on an individual’s record before giving them a promotion or hiring them in the future.
This is why I asked legislators to pass a bill that would ban pre-trial diversion for embezzlers or fraudsters who steal more than $10,000 of public money. The Legislature then showed strong leadership in passing that bill with the help of Rep. Nick Bain, Sen. Daniel Sparks, and legislative leadership. Gov. Tate Reeves then signed the bill, making it the new law of the land.
This is not legislation that punishes someone for making an innocent mistake. Intentionally stealing more than $10,000 is not a mistake. It requires forethought and planning. And the perpetrators are typically not young folks who make a dumb mistake early in life. White collar criminals who steal more than $10,000 are typically educated and have worked in a place for a long enough period of time to figure out how to steal.
I should also stress that not all judges in Mississippi are the same. Many judges around the state have been some of the most forceful advocates for holding fraudsters and embezzlers accountable. They have thrown stiff penalties at the folks investigated by my office.
Unfortunately, there are other judges who do not, and the taxpayers are often hurt. They forget that there are victims of these crimes, and the victims are the taxpayers. They open the door to the embezzlers obtaining a new job, with a clean record, and stealing again.
If our society is going to throw a young man in jail for stealing $10,000 from a gas station, we should hold white collar embezzlers accountable to the same degree. It should not matter that the white collar embezzler stole with a pen and wore a tie while he was doing it.
Thankfully, public servants around the state were able to come together and agree on this point and enact good policy in the form of this new law. I will continue to work for you in holding fraudsters accountable, but I will also work with the Legislature and the Governor to forge agreements between them and improve our laws as well.
Shad White is the 42nd State Auditor of Mississippi