Legal Expert: Conflict of interest for some Convention Commission members

Legal Expert: Conflict of interest for some Convention Commission members

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Millions of tax dollars filter through Hattiesburg's Lake Terrace Convention Center every year.

It is regulated by a select group of commission members appointed to make sure that money is spent wisely.

However, an On Your Side investigation has uncovered several possible conflicts of interests for some commission members.

In a three year period, Hattiesburg Convention Commission board member Lewis Myrick has a family business that has received over $82,000 in business from the convention commission that he oversees.

Constitutional law expert and Mississippi College law professor Matt Steffey said, "There's a fundamental idea of a conflict of interest is that you have a person that has a divided loyalty."

MS Code § 25-4-105 (2015) states, "No public servant shall use his official position to obtain, or attempt to obtain, pecuniary benefit for himself other than that compensation provided for by law, or to obtain, or attempt to obtain, pecuniary benefit for any relative or any business with which he is associated."

The expenses to Economy Supply hit the Convention Commission claims docket almost monthly and range from a few hundred dollars to as much as $16,000 for each monthly transaction.

According to Steffey, when you add it all up, it could equal a bigger issue.

"There is a legal problem with funneling public money through the revenue that's at the commission's disposal to businesses in which either a commission member or family member have a material ownership in or an employment relationship with," Steffey said.

Board minutes show Myrick was present for 85 percent of HCC board meetings from November 2012 to January 2016 where those expenses were approved, and each time he voted to approve the spending.

On Your Side reached out to Myrick about the perceived conflict of interest, but he has not responded to those requests.

In Steffey's opinion, perks for any business in that situation are undeniable.

"If it didn't benefit the business, they wouldn't take the money," Steffey said.

Another perceived conflict of interest exists for Tourism Commission board member Catherine Price. An email shows that Price solicited donations from Executive Director Rick Taylor in 2014 for the Historic Hattiesburg Downtown Association.

At the time, Price sat on the association's board of directors.

In an email to Taylor, Price writes in part, "We are trying to get enough money together from sponsors… Can the payment for three HCCC entities be paid sooner rather than later?"

Price then asked for an additional donation from another convention center entity.

On Your Side's Mike McDaniel asked Commission Spokesperson and Board Member Bud Kirkpatrick about the request.

"So Cathie is on the HHDA board of directors, lives in the avenues and has control over Rick's salary and bonuses and is asking for this money. That's appropriate?" Mike asked.

Kirkpatrick said, "Yes. Asking for the convention, the Sanger and the USO and the tourism to be a promotion sponsor for downtown..."

Convention Tourism Board Member Marshall Bell also has a potential conflict of interest. Bell is the former tournament director for Boot Walker Golf, which is an annual fundraising event to help underprivileged youth get college scholarships.

In Bell's 10-year stint, he was responsible for raising money for those scholarships. Even though Bell stepped down from that position in 2013, he said he still participates in the tournament each year.

In the three years of claims dockets On Your Side analyzed, the Convention Commission paid $4,500 to the Boot Walker Golf, which is the charity that was important to Bell.

While donating to local charities and organizations is honorable, Steffey said any commission member having an added interest is setting up the commission for potential legal trouble.

"That charity is receiving a pecuniary benefit," he said.

Hattiesburg Convention and Tourism Commission Executive Director Rick Taylor has continued to deny all of our requests for an on-camera interview.