PEER pressure

During Carey Wright’s four-year tenure as the state’s public education chief, there have been regular concerns about the hiring and spending practices at the Mississippi Department of Education.

Questions have been raised about five-figure raises she has given, about the hiring of high-priced aides, about the mishandling of federal grant money, about her vague explanations of travel expenditures.

Now comes a particularly disturbing report from the state’s legislative watchdog group about possible cronyism in the awarding of MDE contracts and suspicious steps taken to avoid transparency and oversight in these contracts and others.

Asked by lawmakers to look into MDE’s contracting, the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review uncovered the following:

Eight contracts totaling more than $600,000 were awarded to former Maryland coworkers of Wright’s or their companies to revamp MDE’s information technology division. One of those consultants has since joined Wright’s staff.

MDE paid a politically connected Memphis businessman more than $214,000 during one fiscal year for computer-related goods and services without a contract and without entering quotes or purchase orders into the state’s accounting system.

In several cases, contracts appeared to have been broken up into increments small enough so as to avoid competitive bidding or approval from Wright’s bosses on the state Board of Education. If that was the intent, it would be a violation of state law that forbids “invoice splitting.”

In other cases, information technology work appears to have been improperly coded as “personal services” — an important distinction since by doing so, those contracts avoided falling under the purview of another state agency charged with overseeing the purchase of IT goods and services.

All told, it just doesn’t smell right, as several PEER Committee members have said. Nor has MDE reportedly been cooperative in clearing the air.

The PEER report calls, as several legislators also have said, for a thorough investigation by the state auditor, whose job it is to see that state spending is appropriate and done within the parameters of state laws.

It needs to be clearly determined what MDE received for the money it spent, whether those charges were reasonable, and, most importantly, whether there was a scheme within MDE to circumvent the state’s bid and contracting laws.

If there was such a scheme, then Wright must be held responsible for it and her continued employment seriously questioned.


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