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Gov. Tate Reeves’ top political donors received $1.4 billion in state contracts from his agencies

Gov. Tate Reeves’ top campaign contributors netted $1.4 billion in state contracts or grants from agencies the governor oversees, a Mississippi Today investigation found. Of the 88 individual or corporate donors who have given Reeves’ campaigns at least $50,000, Mississippi Today identified 15 donors whose companies received a total of $1.4 billion in state contracts […]

By Jesse Valentine - November 01, 2023
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Mike Pence and Miss. Gov Tate Reeves on Nov. 4, 2019
Tate Reeves greets Mike Pence in Mississippi, Nov. 4, 2019. Source: The White House from Washington, DC, Public domain

Gov. Tate Reeves’ top campaign contributors netted $1.4 billion in state contracts or grants from agencies the governor oversees, a Mississippi Today investigation found.

Of the 88 individual or corporate donors who have given Reeves’ campaigns at least $50,000, Mississippi Today identified 15 donors whose companies received a total of $1.4 billion in state contracts or grants since he took office in 2020.

The investigation reveals how private companies, whose executives routinely donate large sums to politicians, can rake in hundreds of millions in Mississippi taxpayer funds while having the ear of powerful elected officials.

Reeves, one of the most prolific political fundraisers in state history, has set numerous annual and office-specific campaign donation records. But he’s been criticized by Republican and Democratic opponents as transactional — a politician who helps those who directly help him.

The $1.4 billion total in state contracts identified by Mississippi Today does not include dozens of additional contracts the Reeves donors have received from state agencies not led by the governor. For example, the Mississippi Department of Transportation awarded the governor’s top donors at least $552 million since 2020.

The total also doesn’t include millions in incentives and tax breaks many of his top donors have received, and it doesn’t include any state contracts that Reeves donors who have given less than $50,000 may have received.

Unlike many other states, Mississippi has no general “pay-to-play” prohibition, restrictions or special reporting requirements for campaign contributions from people or companies doing business with state government.

In fact, it’s common for owners or executives of companies that reap millions of dollars a year from Mississippi taxpayers to be among the largest donors to the state’s top public officials.

And it’s not just Reeves.

The governor’s campaign has accused his Democratic challenger Brandon Presley, who has served 15 years on the Public Service Commission, of illegally accepting campaign contributions from companies that had business before the commission. One company highlighted in Reeves’ public complaints gave Presley at least $16,500 in campaign donations.

Presley did vote to grant the company approval for a project, but he and others — including one of his Republican colleagues on the commission — maintain accepting the contributions did not violate state law.

READ MORESolar company’s donations to Brandon Presley appear legal. But should he have accepted them?


Examples of donors whose companies received state contracts

Centene

The second largest campaign donor to Reeves is also the single largest state contract recipient — and one that recently had to settle a lawsuit claiming it overcharged state agencies.

Centene, a St. Louis-based health care company that ranks 25th on the Forbes list of top 500 companies, is the nation’s largest Medicaid managed care company. Through its subsidiary company Magnolia Health, it is the recipient of a $1.2 billion managed care contract.

Centene LLC has contributed $318,000 during Reeves’ political campaigns, including a single check for $100,000 in 2023. The Centene PAC has contributed another $44,000 over the course of Reeves’ career. 

In 2022, Centene was among three companies selected by Reeves’ Division of Medicaid to continue to provide managed care services to Medicaid patients. The contracts were awarded through a blind bidding process. It is estimated the total cost of the latest Centene contract is around $1.2 billion, though those numbers are fluid based on various factors, such as the number of people enrolled in Medicaid.

Magnolia, the Centene subsidiary, has a long relationship with the Mississippi Medicaid program. Since 2017, Magnolia has received state contracts totaling more than $9 billion. Those contracts were awarded before Reeves was governor, though they came while he was lieutenant governor and serving as the presiding officer of the Senate.

Centene received its most recent contract extension after settling a lawsuit filed in 2021 by the state of Mississippi. That settlement — $55 million — came after state Auditor Shad White and Attorney General Lynn Fitch accused another Centene company of overcharging the state for prescription drugs for Medicaid patients.

In 2022, after the Centene lawsuit settlement, Republican state Rep. Becky Currie of Brookhaven offered and passed a House amendment that would have prohibited Centene from receiving another state contract. While the amendment passed the House, it died later in the legislative process.

“I am doing away with doing business with the company who took $55 million of our money that was supposed to be spent on the poor, the sick, the elderly, the mentally ill, the disabled,” Currie said of the Centene contract at the time. “Last year in 2021, Centene brought in a $126 billion profit. They are in other states, that’s not just from us. But that’s all taxpayers’ money. They don’t make anything, they don’t take care of anybody, they don’t do anything, they just get taxpayers’ money from states.”

Centene officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Rob Wells and YoungWilliams

Rob Wells, the CEO of Ridgeland-based YoungWilliams law firm that receives one of the state’s largest contracts, has contributed at least $173,500 individually to Reeves going back through his political career.

Since Reeves was elected governor, the Mississippi Department of Human Services, which Reeves oversees directly, awarded YoungWilliams a $135 million state contract to collect child support payments.

In late 2020, Mississippi Today published a story revealing Wells’ contributions to Reeves and other politicians as well as questions about YoungWiliams’ contract with the state. After the article was published, Wells stopped donating individually to Reeves. But he has still found a way to get his personal political contributions to the governor.

Wells donated $120,000 to a newly formed political action committee called the MS Build PAC, according to records filed with the Secretary of State. The PAC has since diverted at least $80,000 of its funds to Reeves’ campaign.

And before Reeves’ governorship, when the Department of Human Services was overseen by former Gov. Phil Bryant, YoungWilliams had received a $58 million state contract.

Reeves was presiding over the Senate as lieutenant governor when legislation was passed to allow the child support program to be privatized, thus opening the door for the contracts received by YoungWiliams.

According to the Transparency Mississippi web page, the latest YoungWilliams contract was awarded through a competitive bidding process.

Wells did not respond to requests for comment.

Neil Forbes and Horne LLP

Neil Forbes, one of Reeves’ top political donors, is the managing partner of Horne LLP, a Ridgeland-based accounting firm that has dozens of contracts with numerous state agencies. 

Since Reeves was elected governor, Horne has received at least $13 million in contracts from agencies Reeves directly oversees.

When COVID-19 gripped the state and gutted the economy, the Mississippi Department of Employment Services was overrun with unemployment requests. The federal government had appropriated millions to Mississippi and other states to supplement their own existing unemployment funds. With tens of thousands of Mississippians out of work and a huge pot of money available to assist them, the state’s employment agency needed help. 

In April 2020, Forbes, on behalf of Horne, signed a $10 million contract with MDES to establish a call center and workflows to help the state with the surge of unemployment requests. Forbes signed a second contract with MDES in April 2021 that was worth $2.2 million for the same purpose.

In both cases, Reeves signed emergency orders allowing the state’s employment agency to enter into no-bid, emergency contracts with Horne. Outside those two COVID-related contracts, Horne also received an additional $455,000 in state contracts from other agencies Reeves oversees.

Forbes, who was made a managing partner of Horne in 2021, had never donated to Reeves’ campaigns before the massive COVID-era contracts came. But on Aug. 25, 2021, Forbes cut Reeves a first campaign check for $2,500. The next month, in September 2021, Forbes wrote Reeves a $10,000 check. In two separate checks in 2022, Forbes wrote another $20,000 to the governor.

Then in February of 2023, just two weeks after Presley announced he would challenge Reeves’ bid for reelection, Forbes wrote Reeves a $25,000 check.

While Forbes began writing checks to the governor, so did his wife. Avery Forbes wrote Reeves a $5,000 check in July 2022 — also her first to the governor. And on April 27, 2023, she wrote Reeves a $25,000 check.

In total, the Forbeses, who had never given to Reeves before Neil Forbes became managing partner at Horne in 2021, have given the governor’s campaign $87,500 in contributions.

Neil Forbes did not respond to requests for comment.

Covington Civil & Environmental

Covington Civil and Environmental, an engineering consultant firm with offices in Gulfport and Mobile, is one of Reeves’ largest donors.

The company has donated more than $66,000 to his campaigns. Company officials and related LLC’s have also given thousands more to Reeves.

Covington, despite having little experience at the time in environmental restoration, garnered contracts worth $36 million from former Gov. Phil Bryant’s administration from the state’s $2.2 billion settlement over the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in 2010.

Under Reeves’ administration, Covington has gotten $792,000 in contracts, including a $500,000 no-bid contract from Reeves’ Department of Finance and Administration to help supervise the state’s federally funded broadband internet expansion efforts.

Covington did not respond to requests for comment.

Other states limit political donations from contractors

Some states, including California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kentucky, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina and West Virginia, have prohibitions or strict limits on campaign donations by government contractors to politicians. Others, including Maryland, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island have special campaign donation reporting requirements for companies and their officers who contribute to candidates.

In the early 2000s, numerous states and large cities considered or enacted pay-to-play restrictions or prohibitions. Often these were in reaction to scandals or corruption.

But since the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United ruling, there has been less of a push for such limitations. In that case the high court held First Amendment freedom of speech prohibits the government from restricting independent expenditures by corporations on behalf of political campaigns. Some state courts followed suit. For example, in Colorado, a constitutional amendment passed by voters prohibiting sole-source state contractors and their families from contributing to campaigns was struck down as unconstitutional by the state’s Supreme Court.

Reform supporters say unregulated political contributions present a real danger of corruption, or at least the appearance of corruption, in government contracting. Opponents of such laws say prohibitions or restrictions on campaign contributions by government contractors limit their freedom of speech.

Mississippi’s campaign finance, lobbying and ethics laws and reporting requirements are notably weak, and contained in a piecemeal patchwork of confusing — and some conflicting — laws passed over many years. But even if Mississippi had stricter campaign finance laws, it’s unclear who might enforce them.

The secretary of state’s office and Ethics Commission have for years said they lack enforcement or investigative authority. The secretary of state’s office is responsible for receiving campaign finance reports but serves mainly as a repository, with no real investigative or enforcement authority. The Ethics Commission, after some changes to laws in recent years, appears to have some authority, but it’s unclear.

“It’s a mess,” state Ethics Commission Director Tom Hood said recently of Mississippi’s campaign finance laws. “Changes (to the law) have been made multiple times over multiple years, and it’s like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t fit.”

Attorney General Lynn Fitch, as the state’s top law officer, runs the only state agency with clear authority to investigate and prosecute campaign finance violations. But Fitch, like her recent predecessors, has shown little interest in investigating or prosecuting complaints and enforcing campaign finance laws.

Mississippi attorney general actions on campaign finances or lobbying over the years have been so rare that, when they do happen, they bring outcry of selective enforcement.

Most often, campaign finance violations go unchecked, leaving the state political system open to the corrosive influence of special interest money.

Mississippi’s system also lacks transparency. For instance, unlike all neighboring states, Mississippi’s campaign finance reports are not electronically searchable. They are PDF files, and some politicians still submit hand-written reports. One in recent years submitted hers in calligraphy.

Mississippi allows politicians (except some judges) to take unlimited campaign contributions from individuals, LLCs and PACs. While there is a $1,000-a-year limit on corporate donations, this is easily sidestepped by corporate officers or lobbyists donating large amounts.

State lawmakers for many years have been loath to enact meaningful reform, transparency or oversight of the intersection of politics and money. This leaves the door wide open for corruption.

Numerous complaints about Mississippi money in politics

This year’s statewide campaign cycle has seen numerous complaints about alleged campaign finance violations, in several races besides the gubernatorial one. Earlier this year, out-of-state dark money groups pumped more than $1.4 million into the Republican primary race for Mississippi lieutenant governor, in support of unsuccessful GOP candidate Chris McDaniel. Incumbent Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann filed legal complaints with the AG’s office.

There have been other questions about Public Service Commission candidate campaign finances this election cycle. PSC candidates face stricter campaign finance laws, enacted by state lawmakers years ago after past scandals and corruption with the utility regulating authority. PSC candidates are prohibited from taking contributions from officers of public utilities whose rates the commission sets.

The Magnolia Tribune in June questioned a donation to gubernatorial candidate Presley from a regulated utility. Presley returned the $500 donation, saying it was mistakenly accepted. The publication also questioned donations to Presley and Central District Public Service Commissioner Brent Bailey from a law firm that represents the PSC, with its fees paid by Entergy, a regulated power company.

Both Bailey and Presley have denied their questioned contributions fall under the PSC campaign finance prohibition. A solar company that donated to Presley is threatening to sue Reeves over ads he is running saying its donations to Presley were illegal.

In the Southern District PSC race, challenger Wayne Carr — who defeated incumbent Republican Commissioner Dane Maxwell in the primary — claimed Maxwell took $18,000 in illegal contributions from PSC-regulated utilities or affiliates and failed to report thousands in campaign spending. Maxwell denied any wrongdoing, but returned some of the donations, saying he unknowingly accepted some he shouldn’t have.

The complaints of legally questionable spending and reporting prompted calls for Fitch to investigate, and for reform in state campaign finance laws.

Both incumbent Republicans Hosemann and Secretary of State Michael Watson have vowed to push campaign finance reform in the 2024 Legislature. Presley has made such reform a main plank in his platform during his 2023 gubernatorial campaign.

One area that will likely be debated by lawmakers is what elected official or agency would investigate and enforce campaign finance complaints and regulations. In numerous other states, ethics commissions or special commissions oversee such operations. In some states, elected officials such as secretaries of state have such responsibility. 

Hood recently said he’s not pushing lawmakers for large increases in funding or authority for the Mississippi’s Ethics Commission. But he would like for laws and responsibilities to be clearer, particularly with campaign finance issues.

“Somebody needs to have clear authority and responsibility to enforce the law — that would be a good first step,” Hood said.


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