Salter: Phillips and his feds changed culture of corruption 1/30/2015

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 30, 2015

Salter: Phillips and his feds changed culture of corruption

STARKVILLE – Can it be that the “Pretense” scandal is now 30 years in Mississippi’s political rear-view mirror?

During the 1980s, 57 of Mississippi’s 410 county supervisors from 26 of the state’s 82 counties were charged with corruption. The FBI’s ploy to catch the criminals was code-named “Operation Pretense.”

“Pretense” wasn’t a high-tech scandal. It was pretty pedestrian kickback scheme driven by fraudulent invoices. Since county supervisors then controlled both the purchasing and receiving of things like culverts and motor grade blades, they could totally control the transaction and skim or steal public funds as they pleased.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The groundbreaking prosecutions of the cases developed by that FBI sting operation came under the directions of a slow-talking, no-nonsense lawyer named George Phillips. Phillips served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi from 1980 to 1994.

George would become a friend and was a trusted and reliable source. In the 1980s, it was difficult for a weekly newspaper publisher 50 miles away from the federal courthouse to cover complex federal investigations and the resulting court proceedings.

After a period of give and take, Phillips began to help keep me in the game. He knew I was talking to an FBI agent source that I had come to know during the early days of the “Pretense” probe as it evolved in Scott County.

As he told the Associated Press in 1987, Phillips wasn’t impressed with talk that the “Pretense” scandal fundamentally changed the culture of local government in Mississippi – which it did without question. George saw it in a simpler light – the difference in right and wrong.

“We’re not some sort of white knights running around trying to change the form of government in Mississippi. We’re doing our job,” says U.S. Attorney George Phillips. “We’re not out to change the form of government, to be so presumptive as to tell the state’s political leaders how their seat of government ought to be run. We just know that taking kickbacks and busted (fraudulent) invoices and that sort of thing is against the law.”

While “Pretense” was certainly the case that brought Phillips and his prosecutors (a group The Clarion-Ledger dubbed “Mississippi’s Untouchables” in a story that chronicled “Pretense” and other high profile public corruption prosecutions) the most notoriety, Phillips led other high impact public corruptions prosecutions of powerful public officials including members of the Transportation Commission and members of the Public Service Commission.

It is not an exaggeration to note that those federal public corruption prosecutions in Mississippi in the late 1980s dramatically changed for the better how state government operates and how the state’s elected commissions – Public Service and Transportation – operate.

“Pretense” also was the forerunner of the more aggressive enforcement function of the state auditor’s office that began under former governor and current Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, continued under current Gov. Phil Bryant and remains under the leadership of current State Auditor Stacey Pickering.

Public corruption cases still emerge in Mississippi in 2015, both in local and state government. But in most cases, those investigations don’t rely as heavily on federal prosecutors has they did in the era that George Phillips served as U.S. Attorney.

After leaving the Justice Department, Phillips would later serve as head of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics and a Commissioner of Public Safety. Former Gov. Haley Barbour often noted what he called the “heroism” Phillips demonstrated as part of the state’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

I greatly admired Phillips for his courage and tenacity in taking on public corruption cases in an era when that rarely happened in Mississippi. I also truly enjoyed his dry sense of humor and the fact that while he took his work very seriously, he never took himself seriously.

Phillips was one of the good guys, the white hats – and should be remembered for his work making government at all levels more transparent and accountable.

(Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at