Mildly translucent transparency

It’s unclear whether covering state government in Mississippi turns reporters into cynics, or whether cynical reporters are naturally attracted to a beat where there is so much about which to be cynical.

Whichever it is, Geoff Pender, the witty political editor for The Clarion-Ledger, obviously doesn’t trust a lot of what goes on in state government, and for good reason.

Recently, Pender was writing about the state’s Transparency Mississippi website. Its creation was ordered by the Legislature in 2008, while Phil Bryant was lieutenant governor, with high expectations that it would help not just reporters but the public in general keep tabs on how state officials and employees spent the taxpayers’ money. The hope was that full disclosure would not only satisfy the curiosity of the nosy but it would also help keep government employees honest.

The theory was great, the execution not so. Pender and others have discovered just how much spending can still be hidden through incomplete or vague reporting. He says the website should be more aptly named the “Mildly Translucent Mississippi” site.

The other day, Pender was trying to help a colleague pull data about the state’s travel spending. After about an hour of running into intentionally constructed brick walls, Pender said he had a splitting headache.

Dr. David Dzielak, the Medicaid director who has been in the news recently over the questioned rewarding of a major state contract, is chronically vague about his requests for travel reimbursements, which added up last year to nearly $11,000. When he goes to out-of-state meetings, which he apparently does frequently, he doesn’t specify where he went or why, Pender says. Just some tell-nothing verbiage, such as for stated purpose: “Any out of state meetings and/or activities pertaining to the office of executive services.”

State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright isn’t any more forthcoming in her travel expense reporting, plus she apparently is in need of a good proofreader. Her travel reimbursements last year for “instate,” “out of state” and “ouofstate” were $3,940, according to her reports.

There are, to be sure, a few examples of forthrightness. Marshall Fisher, who moved early this year from corrections commissioner to public safety commissioner, is as much of a straight shooter in his accounting as he is in running state agencies. Even when he travels in-state, he is meticulous about explaining where he went, why he went there and what he spent. All government employees should be expected to do the same.

If they can get away, though, without doing so, the Legislature needs to tighten up the law and make it explicit what should be included not just in travel reports, but also in contracts and however else the public’s money is spent.