Fall from power

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 17, 2015

Salter: Robertson’s spectacular fall from power is cautionary tale

STARKVILLE – The attorney who pleaded guilty to embezzling $400,000 from the Singing River Credit Union in Jackson County Circuit Court on Dec. 14 was once one of Mississippi’s most powerful state legislators and it’s hard to overstate the extent of his fall from power.
Former state Sen. Tommy Robertson pleaded guilty to one count of a five-count indictment charging him with using his position as board attorney for the credit union to embezzle a total of $484,092, with $379,592 coming from a single construction loan.
Robertson, 59, served in the state Senate from 1992-2008. His legislative tenure had been marked by three DUI arrests – one in Biloxi in 1997, another on the Ole Miss campus in 2003 and a third arrest in Moss Point in 2008.
The former Gulf Coast lawmaker also drew political fire, but no legal ramifications, in 2006 for submitting the low competitive bid to the Mississippi Development Authority to administer federal housing grants for Hurricane Katrina victims.
It’s legal for state lawmakers to work administering federal funds that they don’t appropriate or have other legal controls over. In that narrow context, there were no ethical violations, either.
But Robertson and a former legislative colleague operated Jackson County Land & Title, a company created to correct problems found in property titles. The Mississippi Development Authority, the state’s economic agency, awarded a contract to the legislators’ company to finalize grants for Coast homeowners who lost property to Hurricane Katrina.
The legislators, both private attorneys, submitted the lowest bid and their company received $250 for every grant it finalized. Democratic critics and some media outlets howled over supposed ethics violations, but the Legislature had no authority over the federal grant money Robertson and his partner reviewed and the Legislature didn’t appropriate the funds in question.
Robertson and his partner were by $75 per contract the lowest bidder for the legal work. If anything, the bid submitted by the lawmakers seemed low based on the work required and the subsequent political flak the pair incurred.
Looking back, it’s hard to fathom Tommy Robertson ending up in this situation. In his legislative prime, Robertson was one of the half-dozen most powerful lawmakers in the state. Robertson chaired the powerful tax-writing Senate Finance Committee.
More than a decade ago, Robertson was at the center of one of the state’s toughest political fights over the issue of the Mississippi Medicaid Reform Act of 2004. Then-state Democratic Party chairman Wayne Dowdy launched a series of attack ads against a group of Republican lawmakers and former Gov. Haley Barbour.
The Democratic ads targeting Barbour, Robertson, Sens. Travis Little of Corinth and Alan Nunnelee of Tupelo along with state Rep. Greg Snowden of Meridian sought to place the sole blame for the Medicaid program cuts on Republican shoulders.
The ads ignored the fact that the Medicaid cuts became reality in Mississippi with the strong support of Democrats in the Legislature. The Medicaid Reform Act passed with strong bipartisan majorities – 43-8 in the Senate and 82-32 in the House. That was back in the era when Democrats controlled the Legislature.
Robertson argued stubbornly – and truthfully – that Medicaid’s woes at that time had been greatly exacerbated by former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove’s exponential expansion of the state’s Medicaid program on this watch.
Perhaps Robertson’s most noteworthy moment in the Legislature came in the battle of the so-called “tax swap” that would have reduced or eliminated the state sales tax on groceries and raised cigarette taxes. Robertson was Barbour’s most loyal ally in that fight.
Robertson argued that the poorest families paid no grocery tax because their food stamp purchases are tax exempt. Health advocates, state Democratic leaders and even Republican former Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck supported the tax swap and argued the lower grocery tax would help the state’s working poor.
(Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com)

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox