By Billy Davis
Panola County Supervisor Vernice Avant has said she is free from a conflict of interest involving a non-profit organization that was formed by her late husband, Robert.
Avant asked her board colleagues last week to renew a 10-year lease with the North Delta Enterprise Community (NDEC).
Supervisors followed through on that request Monday, voting unanimously to renew the lease for 10 years if NDEC maintains the building.
The NDEC operates in Sardis from a one-story brick building, which is county-owned, at 231 Highway 51.
Mrs. Avant has served on the organization’s board of directors, but she told a reporter last week that she stepped down, due to a conflict of interest, when Robert Avant was named executive director.
NDEC filed articles of incorporation with the State of Mississippi in October 1995, with Mr. Avant and Mrs. Avant listed among a 22-member original board of directors at the time.
Robert Avant had been promoted to executive director of the NDEC when he passed away August 8, 2008.
But Mississippi’s ethics laws forbid a public official from obtaining financial help for any business, including a non-profit, in which he’s associated, a statute listed in State Code 25-4-105.
The lease agreement, signed on July 26, 1999, bears Mr. Avant’s signature as president of the Board of Supervisors. A vice-president of North Delta, Marilyn Pierson, signed on behalf of the non-profit.
No other filings from the NDEC have been recorded with the Secretary of State since a non-profit, unlike a private business, is not required to update such information each calendar year.
The Panolian requested, but has not received, an updated list of directors from Verna Hunter, the organization’s present executive director.
The original list of directors, filed in 1995, also included retired County Administrator David Chandler and former county supervisor Jessie Lyons among other names.
The former lease with Panola County government included an agreement that North Delta would perform $20,000 in building improvements in lieu of rental payment.
Documentation that showed those improvements were to be presented to the county administrator – Chandler.
Mrs. Avant also said We Care, Inc., the non-profit adult day care she oversees in Crenshaw, is not funded, nor affiliated, with the North Delta Enterprise Community.
Hunter, asked by The Panolian last week, also said Avant is no longer affiliated with North Delta Enterprise.
Hunter appeared at Monday’s county meeting to request the lease. She apologized to Mrs. Avant for a Panolian story, published last week, which suggested Avant was personally making the request.
“She was making that request for me, because I couldn’t be there,” Hunter explained.
Former president Bill Clinton is credited with starting enterprise communities and “empowerment zones” to improve pockets of poverty.
NDEC disperses federal grants funds across a three-county area that includes Panola, Quitman and Tallahatchie counties with a stated goal of improving housing and education, and job opportunities.
The organization also operates a pair of credit union branches, First Delta Credit Union, in Sardis and Marks
The Sardis branch is located in the county-owned building.
The Panolian began investigating the organization in March 2008 when it learned on the NDEC Web page that $46 million has been collected from various federal agencies, according to a “Funding Report” from 2005.
A tribute to Mr. Avant, penned by the Miss. Delta Grassroots Caucus after his death, credits the late supervisor for dispersing $22 million in Panola, Quitman and Tallahatchie counties.
A “Benchmark Summary Report,” also on the NDECC Web site, shows the organization has spent $3.7 million for small business loans, $1.4 million for park improvements, and $3.9 million for home repairs and new construction, among other activities.
Hunter has told The Panolian that the Benchmark funding represents a summary of all grants and loans, from the NDEC and other sources, that have flowed into the three counties.
Many of those federal funds, $13 million, came from Rural Development, an agency within the federal Department of Agriculture.
Rural Development was also designated to oversee the enterprise communities.
The Panolian sent a Freedom of Information request to the Rural Development office in Jackson for a list of eight items that included a paper trail of receipts and disbursements, and the names, salaries and benefits of employees and the board of directors.
The NDEC office provided copies of audits not requested, and information already found on its Web site, among the few items that were provided.
An appeal was then made to the Department of Agriculture, which concluded in July 2008, after corresponding with the Jackson office, that the requested materials could not be produced.
At Monday’s county meeting, Supervisor Bubba Waldrup asked Hunter if she had provided receipts to document the $20,000 in building improvements.
Hunter replied that she had been in a doctor’s office and was unable to search for and find the receipts.
“If you had done that, then this would have been cleared up,” Supervisor Kelly Morris told Hunter.
During discussion of the building improvements, Sheriff Hugh “Shot” Bright recalled that county inmates had made repairs to the building.
Hunter replied that she could not recall any work performed by inmates.
Supervisor James Birge made the motion to renew the lease.
Avant provided the second.