January was a tough year, but we made it.
That sums up Tate Reeves’ first few weeks in office as Governor of Mississippi.
Hours after being sworn in, Reeves was on the ground visiting state Corrections facilities assessing conditions and working to lay out a plan to bring in new leadership and set new standards immediately. He moved quickly to gain the assistance of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation in an effort to root out the criminal/gang activity allowed to permeate within the system that has resulted in over a dozen inmate deaths since December 2019.
By the next day, the Governor called a press conference to name a special committee to oversee a nationwide search for a new commissioner to lead the state prison system, while also naming an interim commissioner to begin righting the “catastrophe” he found mere hours earlier.
Then, in his first State of the State address, Reeves announced his administration was taking steps to close the infamous Unit 29 at the state penitentiary, saying “I have seen enough. We have to turn the page. This is the first step, and I have asked the department to begin the preparations to make it happen safely, justly and quickly.”
Reeves openly admits that there are things he doesn’t know quite yet in the massive reform effort underway in Mississippi’s Corrections system, and has made transparency a tenet early on. He is welcoming the Department of Justice and any others who are willing to step in, investigate and assist in providing insight into the poor management of the facilities and the department’s financial waste. DOJ has in fact announced its involvement in the issue.
“Tremendous resources” are necessary to right the wrongs, Reeves recognizes, but he is a budget hawk and “hates spending other people’s money.” He wants to be sure the dollars sent to Corrections, and all agencies, are spent as intended and appropriated.
“The fears that we had in the legislative branch have been confirmed,” Gov. Reeves said. “Money that was intended for the front lines too often did not reach there.”
That was only January.
February isn’t looking much easier.
This week State Auditor Shad White announced an eight month investigation into the Department of Human Services which has resulted thus far in the arrests of the former director and a number of co-conspirators who received funding from the agency.
Gov. Reeves said Thursday that he and Auditor White had met early on to go over what was on the horizon. White indicated to Reeves, the Governor said, that his administration would be inheriting some serious issues within DHS, and he was encouraged to prepare for another critical reform effort.
This one, however, hit closer to home for Reeves.
“Some of the people we now believe were involved in the former director’s apparent criminal scheme gave money to our campaign,” Reeves openly addressed in a press conference a day after the news broke of the investigation. “I can tell you right now: anything they gave to the campaign is going to be moved to a separate, untouched bank account.”
“When the full set of facts come to light, I expect government will likely work to recover any funds that were embezzled,” Reeves continued. “Anything they gave the campaign will be there waiting to return to the taxpayers and help the people it was intended for. If that doesn’t happen, that money will go to a deserving charity. I believe in innocent until proven guilty but I don’t want the campaign to hold on to that money for a second longer than we have to.”
Reeves isn’t the only elected official whose campaign coffers saw donations from the conspirators. Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, Secretary of State Michael Watson, former Attorney General Jim Hood, state legislators and others all received donations over the last few years from those indicted in this scheme.
The Governor said the Auditor had done “excellent work” and that such actions by those entrusted with managing state and federal dollars showed “a truly disgusting abuse of power.”
“It makes me sick to think that resources for people in poverty were being embezzled by a powerful government official,” Reeves said.
“I can tell you, the teachers and students I met there didn’t deserve to be caught up in all of this,” Reeves said. “It makes me sick to think that they are going to have to deal with the repercussions of a few selfish people in positions of power. I would consider them victims of these alleged actions as well.”
Reeves again pledged to be transparent and called for a forensic audit to get the full story on the embezzlement. He said he has empowered the people who called attention to this within DHS, placing them in a position of authority to help reform the department giving them his “100% support.”
“You will see from the work that our administration has already done and the work that we will do that no matter who was involved in these schemes we will protect the future integrity of our state above all else,” Reeves said. “I believe there’s much more to be revealed. I believe there’s more bad news to come.”
The first three weeks of his tenure as Governor are probably not going as he had drawn it up. Large logistical issues like naming agency heads and making personnel decisions that affect thousands of government employees still loom large on the calendar.
But from taking decisive actions on Corrections to the most recent corruption scandal at DHS, Reeves appears capable of handling complex executive decisions and hitting issues head on.