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Pay to Play Still Playing Hard in Mississippi

A law firm’s $18,000 campaign payment to Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves keeps delivering big returns, according to new state contract information.


New Orleans and Jackson law firm Jones Walker LLP, which donates heavily to political candidates, gave $10,500 to Reeves' gubernatorial campaign in 2015 and another $7,500 to him in 2019, according to  (click on the “candidates” tab on the left of the page and scroll down for the governor’s name). Five years later, that firm is enjoying a windfall of Mississippi tax money, as well as money intended by the federal government to help impoverished families.

Mississippi officials have spent roughly $1 million in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds to pay auditors to recover the very same TANF dollars Mississippi department heads wasted on Republican allies and campaign supporters. In 2023, Mississippi paid Jones Walker LLP more than $500,000 from TANF sources to investigate where all the TANF money went. It paid the firm an additional $367,986 by March of this year—also from the same fund Mississippi officials raided for bad contracts.


Information from reveals Republican leaders paid Jones Walker LLP at least $1,250,711.78 since 2021. And earlier this year, Mississippi Department of Human Services Executive Director Robert Anderson and Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch both extended the company's $1,862,500 legal service contract—worth up to $305 an hour—to the end of December.


Tupelo attorney Jim Waide, who is representing Lincoln County resident Austin Garrett Smith against the state’s civil investigation over Smith’s alleged misuse of TANF funds, said Jones Walker LLP is being overpaid for poor service.


“An hourly fee arrangement with any firm will likely result in the expensive pursuit of low-level defendants, such as Austin Smith and others, who have no means to pay a judgement,” Waide told reporters. “On the other hand, an attorney hired on a contingent fee basis would pursue those who are financially able to pay a judgement and would cost the taxpayers nothing if no funds are recovered.”


Waide said the firm should be paid based on what they recoup in litigation, not a $300 an hour fee. Waide’s client argued Gov. Reeves is burning “millions” of dollars on civil litigation when it is the state attorney general’s job to pursue TANF-related clawbacks.


But the money just keeps coming as Mississippi’s leadership turns to Jones Walker again and again for new services. Rather than pay state salaried attorneys, who draw the same pay regardless of workload, Mississippi hired the law firm to research the feasibility of freezing or altering PERS retirees' cost of living adjustments, otherwise known as employees’ “13th check.”

Two decades of small-government philosophy and the privatization of state call centers, child support collections, and other government divisions have deprived the state of Mississippi of more than 16,000 total active PERS contributors since 2020. State, municipal and county employees contribute to PERS, but the state dropped from about 150,000 PERS contributors in 2020, to about 145,000 contributors in 2022. Both of those years represent an even more steep drop from 2014, when the state had 161,000 total active members.


The resulting contribution loss prompted the Mississippi Public Employees’ Retirement System board to suggest a host of painful fixes to salvage the state’s shrinking retirement fund, including a $365 million budget request direct from the legislature to help balance investment. It also suggested the formation of a new “Tier 5” designation for incoming state, county, and city employees that denies them a Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) increase. Additionally, the board recommended a possible 2% contribution rate increase on employers, which will inevitably be passed down to current and future employees, with additional increases being likely. 

 Among these options, leaders also considered the possibility changing the payout method for the cost of living increase for retirees. Many state government pensioners claim their annual 3% cost of living increase as a lump sum payment at the end of the year. This is sometimes referred to as “the 13th check.” The PERS board recommended distributing the money monthly rather than an end of year payout.


Yet again, Jones Walker stood ready to benefit, to the tune of $8,580, while Mississippi leaders lean into the same behavior that first got them here. Critics like Waide noted the irony of flushing exorbitant amounts of TANF money to Jones Walker to chase misspent TANF money. And now leaders are outsourcing work to Jones Walker’s private attorneys to fix a problem caused by outsourcing state jobs.


Additionally, the appearance of pay to play is doing nothing for the ailing image of democracy in Mississippi, say critics.

Craig Holman, lobbyist for consumer rights advocacy group Public Citizen, warns "pay to play” in Mississippi is tearing down democracy and driving voter apathy.

“Anytime voters are aware of campaign contributors getting heavily rewarded by government contracts it raises suspicions as to whether that contract was bought or based on merit,” said Craig Holman, ethics, lobbying and campaign finance researcher for consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. “I’ve helped New Jersey, Connecticut and Illinois draft pay-to-play laws that not only prohibit the firm or company from making campaign contribution, but it prohibits senior company executives from making campaign contributions if they want their company to compete for government contracts.”


Mississippi’s own campaign laws are practically nonexistent. The state’s campaign website is a 1990’s era backwoods of dated posts and bad handwriting, and politicians like secretary of State Michael Watson have made no progress in doing away with politicians’ “legacy” campaign finance accounts created under old rules that allowed politicians to pocket campaign money when they leave office. Worse, Attorney General Fitch, who is the sole arm of legal enforcement for most state divisions, no longer appears to prosecute campaign abuse complaints.


Fitch told reporters the state’s campaign laws are unenforceable, while appearing to award contracts to out-of-state law firms who have donated more than a quarter of a million to her own campaign. Jones Walker gave her $5,000 in 2023, before she approved their lavish contract this February.

Lawmakers failed to pass meaningful campaign finance reform in the 2024 legislative session.


“It’s a monumentally disruptive force in politics when contracts are based on contributions. Less qualified people can end up doing the work instead of good people who didn’t contribute, and it’s a tremendous waste of taxpayer dollars,” said Holman, in reference to a law firm nabbing $300 an hour to deliver pennies instead of reasonable compensation based on a percentage of the monetary award it earns the state.


Holman added pay to play also stifles legitimate, productive government contracts. “It chases out smaller businesses that don’t have a lot of money to make campaign contributions. They’ll often just give up if they’re up against some larger company that is doling out campaign contributions right and left. It’s destructive to the entire government.”


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