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Operation Pretense

Operation Pretense: The FBI's Sting on County Corruption in Mississippi

James R. Crockett
Copyright Date: 2003
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    Operation Pretense
    Book Description:

    During the 1980s fifty-seven of Mississippi's 410 county supervisors from twenty-six of the state's eighty-two counties were charged with corruption. The FBI's ploy to catch the criminals was code-named Operation Pretense.

    Ingenious undercover investigation exposed the supervisors' wide-scaled subterfuge in purchasing goods and services. Because supervisors themselves controlled and monitored the purchasing system, they could supply sham documentation and spurious invoices. Operation Pretense was devised in response to the complaint of a disgruntled company owner, a Pentecostal preacher who balked at adding a required 10 percent kickback to his bid.

    Detailing the intricate story, this book gives an account of the FBI's stratagem of creating a decoy company that ingratiated itself throughout the supervisors' fiefdoms and brought about a jolting exposé, sweeping repercussions, and a crusade for reform.

    The case was so notable that CBS's Mike Wallace came to Mississippi to cast theSixty Minutesspotlight on this astonishing sting and on the humiliated public servants it exposed to public shame.

    The conditions that gave rise to such pervasive malfeasance, the major players on both sides, the mortifying indictments, and the push to finish the clean up are all discussed here.

    In the wake of Operation Pretense were ruined careers, a spirit of watchdog reform, and an overhauled purchasing system bared to public sunshine. However, this cautioning book reveals a system that remains far from perfect.

    This narrative report on the largest public corruption scandal in Mississippi history serves as a reminder of the conditions that allow such crime to flourish.

    James R. Crockett is a professor of accountancy at the University of Southern Mississippi. His work has been published inJournal of Accounting Education,Accounting Educator's Journal, andJournal of Education for Business, among others.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-930-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xiv)

    Operation Pretense was a 1980s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) undercover investigation of corruption in county purchasing in Mississippi. The investigation resulted in 56 of the state’s 410 county supervisors either being convicted by a jury or pleading guilty to various felonies. County supervisors, a county road foreman, and corrupt vendors were indicted as the result of the investigation. Collectively they became known as “The Highway 70.”

    Fifty-seven supervisors from twenty-six counties were charged under Operation Pretense. This total includes two supervisors from Rankin County who were indicted on state charges. Forty-six supervisors pled guilty in federal court. Two supervisors...

  5. Timeline of Significant Events Related to Operation Pretense
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  6. Part I. The Operation Pretense Investigation and Related Trials

    • 1. A License to Steal
      (pp. 3-14)

      Friday, the thirteenth day of February 1987, was a very bad day for many of Mississippi’s county supervisors. An FBI undercover investigation into corrupt county purchasing practices hit the media on the thirteenth after nine indictments had been handed down by federal grand juries in Jackson and Oxford. The three-year investigation was revealed at news conferences in Jackson and Oxford while state auditors seized financial records in many of the state’s eighty-two counties. The indictments charged nine supervisors with bribery, extortion, and mail fraud for allegedly accepting kickbacks, rigging bids, and billing counties for goods never delivered.

      Speaking in Jackson,...

    • 2. Perry County— The First Trial
      (pp. 15-41)

      Perry County was established by the Mississippi legislature in 1820 and named after Oliver Hazard Perry, a naval hero in the War of 1812. The western part of Greene County was partitioned to form Perry County so that the people in that area would not to have to cross the Leaf River to conduct county business. Richton, Beaumont, and New Augusta, the county seat, are the only towns in the county located in the long-leaf pine belt of southeast Mississippi. Perry County had a total population of fewer than 11,000 according to the 1990 census. The county had a population...

    • 3. Wayne County— Two Trials and 60 Minutes
      (pp. 42-51)

      Wayne County, which borders Alabama in southeast Mississippi, has a population of about 19, 500 and only two towns of any size, Waynesboro and State Line. The county was named after Revolutionary War hero General Anthony “Mad Anthony” Wayne, who in 1783, with his small army, liberated Georgia from the British. The county seat, Waynesboro, derives its name from the county itself. Wayne County captured the nation’s attention in 1988 when the country’s most watched television program, CBS’s60 Minutes, ran a segment entitled “The Preacher and the Sting Man.”

      The60 Minutessegment vividly described how the FBI stung...

    • 4. Lamar County— Campaign Contributions
      (pp. 52-59)

      Named for L. Q. C. Lamar, U.S. senator from Mississippi and justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Lamar County was established in 1904 in the southcentral part of the state. According to the 1990 census, Lamar County had 30,424 residents. Purvis, with a 1990 population of 2,256, is the county seat. The extreme western part of Hattiesburg is in Lamar County, and the bulk of the county’s population resides in the city or its western suburbs. Hattiesburg is the home of the University of Southern Mississippi and a large medical community, as well as several manufacturing plants, including a world-class...

    • 5. Claiborne County— A Not Guilty Verdict
      (pp. 60-64)

      Claiborne County, located in the southwestern part of Mississippi, has the Mississippi River as its western border. Its population of fewer than 12,000 was 82 percent black in the 1990 census. When the Yankee general Ulysses S. Grant passed through the county seat during the War between the States as he approached Vicksburg from the south, he declared Port Gibson a “city too pretty to be burned.” The general’s words are still on signs that welcome visitors to the city. In the 1980s, Claiborne County became the home of the very controversial Grand Gulf nuclear power plant that is located...

    • 6. Winston County— “I Didn’t Know What a Kickback Was”
      (pp. 65-71)

      Winston County was established in 1833 under the Choctaw Cession of 1830. The county boasts a famous Choctaw Indian mound, Nanih Wayia, which is about 35 feet high, 60 feet wide, and 100 feet long. A natural geological formation called the Nanih Wayia Cave Mound located a mile and a half east, is 80 feet high and 180 by 340 feet at the base. Both mounds are in the Nanih Wayia State Park sixteen miles southeast of Louisville. The legendary birthplace and capital of the Choctaw Indians, Nanih Wayia has been called the “Mother Mound” of the Choctaws, and the...

    • 7. Marion County— Pretense Plus
      (pp. 72-79)

      Located in south-central Mississippi along the Louisiana border, Marion County was named for Frances Marion, a general in the Revolutionary War. Columbia is the county seat and the only city of any size in this county that had a 1990 population of 25,544, the thirty-first largest in the state. The late Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton, the leading rusher in National Football League history, played high school football at Columbia High. While the county could take pride in the accomplishments of native son Walter Payton, one of its elected supervisors’ antics in the 1980s proved more than a little...

    • 8. A Vendor’s Trial— Bobby Little Never Busted an Invoice
      (pp. 80-84)

      On November 19, 1987, a grand jury in Oxford indicted North Mississippi Supply Company of Rienzi in Alcorn County and its president, Bobby R. Little. The fifty-two-year-old businessman was a member of a very prominent politically connected family. His father was a former Alcorn County supervisor, and a brother was serving as an Alcorn County supervisor at the time of Little’s indictment. Little pleaded not guilty on November 20 to a 310-count indictment charging him and his company with mail fraud, bribery, and conspiracy; his company also pleaded not guilty through an attorney. Little was released on a $50,000 bond....

  7. Part II. Related Matters

    • 9. The Auditors
      (pp. 87-101)

      Ray Mabus was elected state auditor in 1984, and he was serving in that office when Operation Pretense broke in February 1987. Under Mabus, the Department of Audit had been cooperating with the FBI investigation for more than two years before any indictments were handed down. When the first indictments were made public on February 12, 1987, Department of Audit personnel were in counties across the state copying public records that might be needed in the investigation. Before Mabus became its head, the Department of Audit had long been politicized and was simply not a professional audit organization. The state...

    • 10. The Unit System— Slow Progress
      (pp. 102-122)

      Richard S. Childs was quoted in the Brookings Institution’s 1932Report on a Survey of the Organization and Administration of State and County Government in Mississippias follows:

      The county is of all units of government the most unprogressive and corrupt, the most neglected by citizens, press, and reformers. It is the very citadel of political bossism. Reform waves and improvements in governmental structure have made machine rule precarious in cities, and state governments are the scenes of vast renovations, but county government is in structure as it was in the stage-coach days when it was designed. … Deeds that...

    • 11. State Highway Commissioners— We Play Too
      (pp. 123-134)

      Until 1992, building and maintaining state highways were responsibilities of the State Highway Department. In 1992, the State Highway Department was renamed the Department of Transportation and given additional responsibilities. The state is divided into three districts, northern, central, and southern, each of which elects a transportation (prior to 1992, highway) commissioner. The commissioners supervise the work on state highways and divide up moneys that the legislature appropriates for highways. The three-district arrangement perpetuates at the state level a fragmented system that almost invites corruption. Thus, the state as a whole suffers from inadequate planning and control of the highway...

    • 12. Madison County— Who Pays for the Backhoe?
      (pp. 135-138)

      Named for the fourth president of the United States, Madison County, located just north of Jackson in the central part of the state, was ranked twelfth among Mississippi’s eighty-two counties in population in 1990 with nearly 54,000 residents. Canton, the county seat, was the picturesque location for the filming of John Grisham’sA Time to Kill. Madison, one of the state’s fastest growing counties, contains some of Jackson’s most affluent suburbs. In the late 1990s, Madison County was selected by Nissan Motors as the site of a large new manufacturing facility.

      Unfortunately, for the past two decades Madison County government...

  8. Part III. Plea Bargains

    • 13. Action in North Mississippi— Panola, Pontotoc, and Monroe Counties
      (pp. 141-167)

      Established in 1836, Panola County is located in northwestern Mississippi along the eastern edge of the Mississippi Delta. Panola is a Choctaw word for cotton. The county is one of the nine in Mississippi with two county seats, Batesville and Sardis. Having two county seats is an anachronism left over from the poor transportation systems of the 1800s and a reminder of how slowly political changes occur in Mississippi. The two towns are about ten miles apart and are connected by I-55. With a population of 29,996, the county ranked twenty-ninth in the 1990 census. Batesville, with fewer than 7,000...

    • 14. The Vortex of the Maelstrom— Attala, Leake, and Neshoba Counties
      (pp. 168-188)

      Established in 1833, north-central Mississippi’s Attala County is said to be named after a Native American heroine. That the name was derived from the Cherokee word “otale,” meaning mountain, is also a possibility. Since there are no mountains anywhere in the state, the first possibility seems more likely. The county had a 1990 population of 18,481, and Kosciusko, the county seat, had a population of 7,415.

      Attala County is the birthplace and early childhood home of Oprah Winfrey, the celebrated talk show host and Oscar-nominee for her performance in Steven Spielberg’sThe Color Purple. Winfrey was born and spent her...

    • 15. The I-20 East Corridor— Scott, Newton, and Lauderdale Counties
      (pp. 189-208)

      Located between Jackson and Meridian and bisected by I-20, Scott County is in the very midsection of Mississippi. Established in 1833, the county was named for Abram M. Scott, Mississippi’s seventh governor (1831–1833) and the last governor elected under the constitution of 1817. Scott, a South Carolina native, moved to the Natchez District and served as a captain of militia during the 1813–1814 Creek Wars. He represented Wilkerson County at the 1817 constitutional convention, and he served as lieutenant governor from 1828 to 1830. With 24,137 residents, the county had the thirty-fourth largest population of the state’s eighty-two...

    • 16. Rankin County— Three Boards of Supervisors in One Year
      (pp. 209-220)

      Rankin County is home to about 90,000 people, placing it fourth in population among Mississippi counties. Located in the central part of the state, Rankin County is separated from Hinds County and the capitol city of Jackson by the Pearl River. Brandon, the county seat, was the childhood home of Mississippi’s first (1958) Miss America, Mary Ann Mobley. Over the past three decades, the county, which usually boasts a low unemployment rate, has been one of the state’s most prosperous. Nevertheless, Rankin County has a long history of corruption. For example, in the days of Prohibition, Rankin County was a...

    • 17. Three Southern Counties with Five Crooked Supervisors— Smith, Jasper, and Clarke Counties
      (pp. 221-234)

      Established in 1833 in south-central Mississippi, Smith County was named for David Smith of Hinds County. When Smith County was established in December 1833, David Smith’s daughter was married to Mississippi’s governor, Hiram Runnels. Smith, a North Carolina native, moved to the Natchez District after serving in the North Carolina militia during the American Revolution. The county had a 1990 population of 14,798, and Raleigh, with a 1990 population of only 998, is the county seat. The city was named for England’s Sir Walter Raleigh or for the city of Raleigh, North Carolina, which was named for the renowned sailor....

    • 18. Big-Time Corruption in South Mississippi— Copiah, Lincoln, Covington, and Greene Counties
      (pp. 235-256)

      Copiah County, with a 1990 population of 27,592, is located in southwest Mississippi, and Hazlehurst is the county seat. Beth Henley, an award-winning playwright and a Jackson native, set her Pulitzer Prize–winning play,Crimes of the Heart, in the fictitious MaGraft family kitchen in Hazlehurst. The MaGraft family kitchen was modeled after the kitchen of Henley’s grandmother, who lived in Hazlehurst during Henley’s formative years.Crimes of the Heartwon the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle award in 1981. It was the first drama to win the Pulitzer Prize before going on Broadway. Henley also...

    • 19. Crime on the Coast— Hancock, Harrison, and Jackson Counties
      (pp. 257-277)

      In 1812, while it was still a territory, Mississippi named a Gulf Coast county after John Hancock, who had made a big impression with his bold signature on the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The Pearl River separates Hancock County from Louisiana’s St. Tammany Parish on the west, and Harrison County borders it on the east. According to the 1990 census, the county had a population of 31,760. The beautiful little city of Bay St. Louis is the county seat. Director emeritus of the Eisenhower Center and retired professor of history at the University of New Orleans, Stephen E. Ambrose,...

    • 20. The Vendors— It Takes Two to Tango
      (pp. 278-290)

      Chapter 8 outlines the charges leveled against a prominent vendor, Bobby Little, and chronicles the legal developments in the only Pretense-related case against a vendor that actually went to trial. There were, however, twelve other vendors charged with Pretense-related offences. This chapter summarizes their cases, including the many contributions that cooperating vendors made to the success of Operation Pretense.

      In mid-February 1988, CBS’s Mike Wallace and his60 Minutescrew arrived in Mississippi to tape a segment on Operation Pretense. Wallace interviewed some of the people involved in the now well-known FBI sting, including three of the main participants in...

  9. Epilogue— Will the Beat Return?
    (pp. 291-300)

    Claiborne County supervisors were in trouble again in early 1998, long after Pretense had been shut down. Two supervisors and a county employee pleaded guilty in April 1998 to bilking Claiborne County of nearly $25,000. District two supervisor Edward Carter, district five supervisor Charles Johnson, and secretary Charlene Moore pleaded guilty in Claiborne County circuit court to one count each of embezzlement. The charges resulted from of a year-long investigation by the state attorney general and the Department of Audit. At least one other supervisor was a target of the continuing investigation. Attorney General Mike Moore, who termed the setup...

  10. Appendix A Counties and Their Officials Who Were Charged Under Operation Pretense, Indicted Highway Commissioners, and Vendors Charged in Operation Pretense—Disposition of the Cases
    (pp. 301-308)
  11. Appendix B The Tale of the Tapes
    (pp. 309-316)
  12. Sources
    (pp. 317-330)
  13. Index
    (pp. 331-339)