MS Ethics Commission opinion raises questions at Forrest County SO

Forrest County Jail/Photo credit: WDAM
Forrest County Jail/Photo credit: WDAM

FORREST COUNTY, MS (WDAM) - A recent opinion from the Mississippi Ethics Commission has raised questions for Forrest County Sheriff Billy McGee and his department regarding employing family members.

In November 2016, Forrest County Sheriff's Dept. Capt. Chief Investigator Nick Calico married Sheriff McGee's daughter, making him the sheriff's son-in-law.

That direct link in the family is something that is specifically named in an advisory opinion published by the Mississippi Ethics Commission.

On June 2, 2017, the question and answer below, were published.

"May a relative of the sheriff be employed by the sheriff's office?"

The answer:

"No. Section 25-4-105(1), Miss. Code of 1972, prohibits a public servant, such as a sheriff, from using his or her position to obtain, or attempt to obtain, a monetary benefit for his or her relatives, including a son-in-law. Under these facts, a violation of Section 25-4-105(1) will inevitably occur."

Nick Calico:

Calico was hired Jan. 20, 2005, and has worked for the sheriff's department since then.

Sheriff McGee, who has been sheriff for 26 years, officially retired as sheriff on Dec. 31, 2015, with a $100,000 salary. McGee is currently drawing his retirement and making $23,441.01 a year from the county, still serving as a part-time sheriff, which is roughly 1/4th of his pay.

Since his official retirement, McGee has terminated his chief deputy, Charles Bolton, who was convicted on nine felony counts of filing false tax returns and tax evasion on Sept. 15, 2016, in federal court.

McGee has said he will not replace former Chief Deputy Bolton, but his roughly $90,000 salary has been divided among eight people.

One of those eight people was Calico, which moved his salary from $48,006.40 to $58,006.40, a 20.8 percent increase.

When asked for comment regarding the employment status and the advisory opinion, he replied:

"I haven't been contacted by any law enforcement authorities to ask me any questions," said Forrest County Sheriff's Department Investigator, Nick Calico. "Until they do, I will continue to do my job and work and serve the people of Forrest County."

Sheriff Billy McGee did not return phone calls seeking comment.

According to officials with the Mississippi Ethics Commission office, they cannot confirm or deny if any formal complaint has been filed with their office regarding the Forrest County Sheriff's Department.

**Note** The Ethics Commission also could not confirm that the advisory ruling was pertaining to Forrest County. County officials said the opinion was linked to another county in the state, however due to the relationship, the matter is still relevant. **

The Mississippi Attorney General's office directed us to an opinion that lines up with the ethics commission's opinion, related to a Mississippi case from 1985, citing Section 25-1-53 of the Mississippi Code.

"It shall be unlawful for any person elected, appointed or selected in any manner whatsoever to any state, county, district or municipal office, or for any board of trustees of any state institution to appoint or employ, as an officer, clerk, stenographer, deputy or assistant who is to be paid out of the public funds, any person related by blood or marriage within the third degree, computed by the rule of the civil law, to the person or any member of the board of trustees having the authority to make such appointment, or contract such employment as employer. This section shall not apply to any employee who shall have been in said department or institution prior to the time his or her kinsman, within the third degree, became the head of said department or institution or member of said board of trustees," according to the attorney general's ruling.

"Since the statute clearly provides for a relationship established by marriage as well as by blood, then the sheriff could not employ his son-in-law if his son-in-law was to be paid from public funds unless his son-in-law was an employee of the sheriff's office prior to the time the sheriff became the head of said department," according to the ruling.

Laws according to the Ethics Commission:

The pertinent Ethics in Government Laws to be considered here are as follows:

Section 25-4-103, Miss. Code of 1972.

(b) "Benefit" means any gain or advantage to the beneficiary, including any gain or advantage to a third person pursuant to the desire or consent of the beneficiary.

(g) "Government" means the state and all political entities thereof, both collectively and separately, including but not limited to:

(ii) Municipalities;

(iii) All school districts;

(iv) All courts; and

(v) Any department, agency, board, commission, institution, instrumentality or legislative or administrative body of the state, counties or municipalities created by statute, ordinance or executive order including all units that expend public funds.

(l) "Pecuniary benefit" means benefit in the form of money, property, commercial interests or anything else the primary significance of which is economic gain. Expenses associated with social occasions afforded public servants shall not be deemed a pecuniary benefit.

(p) "Public servant" means:

(i) Any elected or appointed official of the government;

(ii) Any officer, director, commissioner, supervisor, chief, head, agent or employee of the government or any agency thereof, or of any public entity created by or under the laws of the state of Mississippi or created by an agency or governmental entity thereof, any of which is funded by public funds or which expends, authorizes or recommends the use of public funds; or

(iii) Any individual who receives a salary, per diem or expenses paid in whole or in part out of funds authorized to be expended by the government.

The Ethics Commission Advisory ruling describes a relative as the following:

(i) The spouse of the public servant;

(ii) The child of the public servant;

(iii) The parent of the public servant;

(iv) The sibling of the public servant; and

(v) The spouse of any of the relatives of the public servant specified in subparagraphs (ii) through (iv). Section 25-4-105, Miss. Code of 1972.

"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," according to the opinion.