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Shad White is watching

Rhodes Scholar. Harvard lawyer. Believer. For Mississippi’s state auditor, there’s no such thing as a “small” crime

Shad White Ted Jackson/ Genesis

Shad White is watching
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Maurice Howard had big plans for Aberdeen, Miss. When the popular hometown boy won the mayor’s seat, he dreamed of bringing in an industry or two, building a strip mall, maybe even attracting a major supercenter like Walmart or Target. For a town with a declining population of barely 5,000, those were high hopes. But Howard, a 6'3" former football standout, had the kind of charisma and camera appeal that made people believe he could do it.

Not long into his term, however, the 32-­year-old mayor developed a bad habit—pocketing money for out-of-state conferences he didn’t attend. By the time a grand jury indicted Howard on five counts of state-level embezzlement charges, though, a pandemic was brewing, leaving his trial date to languish. Meanwhile, Howard decided to run for reelection, and during his campaign, he and his supporters struck back at the man behind the investigation.

They called State Auditor Shad White a racist who made up the charges. The whole thing, they said, was an “embezzle lie.” Enough voters bought it to hand Howard a win, one that left heads shaking across the state. Howard celebrated by telling reporters he’d made history. So what if he was under indictment? He was Aberdeen’s first black mayor to serve back-to-back terms. But his victory was short-lived. Once COVID-19 abated and trials resumed, Howard did a shocking about-face. He walked into a Monroe County courtroom on a cold February morning and pleaded guilty to everything he’d vehemently denied for more than a year.

Today, Shad White calls Aberdeen an “interesting case,” but it isn’t an anomaly. Just a month after Howard’s plea and less than 23 miles away from Aberdeen, special agents from White’s office put cuffs on Polly Tutor, a clerk who allegedly embezzled from a beaver control program. Further west, they did the same to LaTana Williams, a police chief who allegedly worked a retail job while on the clock. None of these corruption cases promised to break the bank. In fact, Howard’s $3,500 theft seems almost unworthy of pursuit in the big scheme of things. But it was worthy.

When White’s office makes arrests in “small” cases, it sends a message to government employees in tucked-away offices: Someone is watching. Small thefts are where corruption begins, and rooting them out amounts to something of a “broken window” theory of policing. It’s an Eliot Ness and the Untouchables approach to fraud fighting, enforcing the law no matter how big the fish or how “small” the crime. The result? White has Mississippi’s money handlers sitting a little straighter in their chairs. “The fancy word for that is deterrent, and that’s what we’re trying to create in the state auditor’s office,” he says.

White and Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens (left) speak with the media on Sept. 22 outside the Hinds County Courthouse in Jackson, Miss., about the historic public corruption case embroiling the state.

White and Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens (left) speak with the media on Sept. 22 outside the Hinds County Courthouse in Jackson, Miss., about the historic public corruption case embroiling the state. Rogelio V. Solis/AP

And every once in a while, White uncovers a big case involving big fish. In 2019, he discovered the ­largest corruption scheme in Mississippi history. A slew of unedited texts associated with the case showed up in national news reports in September.

“If you were to pay me is there anyway the media can find out where it came from and how much?”

“No we never have had that information publicized. I understand you being uneasy about that though.”

The texts are now legal filings. Though the ties are messy, there’s no denying someone wrongly shuffled government money. A shiny new volleyball complex at the University of Southern Mississippi stands as brick-and-mortar proof, just one cog in a massive misspending wheel that moved more than $77 million of welfare funds into personal accounts, pharmaceutical investments, even a luxury drug rehabilitation program. How could anyone assigned to serve the poor in the poorest state in the country squander such an incredible amount of money? And why in the world would they think they could get away with it?

The same week the Magnolia State’s disgraced ­former director of human services pleaded guilty in that still-­unfolding case, Minnesotans were reeling from the largest pandemic-related fraud scheme to date—125 million fake meals for low-income children. In Hawaii, a county official admitted he took nearly $2 million in kickbacks for approving affordable housing credits. In New York, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office asked to overturn 378 convictions because they depended on testimonies from police officers deemed vulnerable to bribes.

It’s an all-too-common vulnerability, and the Bible points out the consequences: “A bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right” (Exodus 23:8). Notice that the first victim is the formerly “clear-sighted” individual. Public corruption is a contagion. And putting a stop to it requires the best crime fighting that money can’t buy.

People don’t make it to a position where they can steal taxpayer funds and commit white-collar fraud by being a nobody. So you have to be prepared to go after anybody, regardless of who they are.

SHADRACK TUCKER WHITE grew up in a 100-year-old house built to face the train tracks in tiny Sandersville, Miss. Whenever Amtrak’s Crescent line rumbled through, it shook the floors, the walls, even his shelf of Michael Crichton books. Back then, a well-worn copy of The Andromeda Strain was White’s companion of choice when he walked over the rails to man the family fireworks booth.

“Forced labor in extreme hot and cold,” he quips with a smile, remembering those long-ago holiday selling seasons. But while his friends were learning basic math skills, the 10-year-old with the 12th grade reading scores was calculating sales tax on bottle rockets—7 percent—in his head. It was a fitting first job for a future state auditor. Especially one who would go on to uncover the most explosive public corruption case in Mississippi’s history.

That web of deception has garnered national attention in part because its cast of characters sounds like pilgrims from some kind of Canterbury tale. A Christian minister. The heir to a wrestling dynasty. A nonprofit administrator and her son. A governor. Retired professional football player Brett Favre. “It’s not a popular thing to tell a Hall of Fame quarterback he owes taxpayers $1.1 million, plus interest,” White admits, sliding into a chair in a conference room in the Woolfolk State Office Building in downtown Jackson. “People don’t make it to a position where they can steal taxpayer funds and commit white-collar fraud by being a nobody. So you have to be prepared to go after anybody, regardless of who they are.”

So he has—full throttle. Since taking office four years ago, White has thrown into the spotlight sticky-­fingered school superintendents, sheriffs, election commissioners, mayors, police chiefs, college deans, and county supervisors. In 2021, he helped the state reach a $55.5 million settlement deal with a Medicaid contractor accused of overcharging taxpayers. A year prior, White went after a university professor for shirking class during a two-day “work stoppage.”

“We’ve had cases where somebody will cut a catalytic converter off of a school bus, and in the grand scheme of things, is that a $10 million loss? No, but it’s still a theft. And folks still expect us to go after those cases,” White says. Like the woman who worked at the water collection office, where the main method of payment is cash. A camera caught her taking money and putting it down her shirt. “I don’t know if you’d call it stupidity or brazenness, but whatever it is, I’m shocked at what people will do, even knowing the potential of being caught.”

Shad White

Shad White Photo by Ted Jackson/Genesis

Some play it down with comedic understatement, reframing it as ­bamboozling, swiping, or being “on the take,” but corruption is no joke. White’s office has recovered more than $65 million, and Mississippi doesn’t even rank among places with the most corruption. The District of Columbia leads there, with a per capita public corruption conviction rate that outnumbers closest contender Louisiana 6 to 1. Illinois comes in third: An editor at Champaign’s The News-Gazette wrote of frequent fraud allegations at the Statehouse, “The people of Illinois are simultaneously tired of and resigned to it.”

Psalm 14 links the condition of being corrupt to a faulty heart—one that can’t conceive of a watching God who holds men accountable for their deeds. That kind of heart doesn’t seem to fear societal punishment either. Why do so many government officials risk arrest to steal? Harvard Business School professor Eugene Soltes gives some insight in his book Why They Do It: Inside the Mind of a White-Collar Criminal. Soltes spent years corresponding with incarcerated fraudsters, trying to figure out how topflight executives succumb to white-collar crime. He found that even after being behind bars for years, the interviewees still believed they didn’t do anything wrong. If they did, they were convinced everybody else was doing it, too.

Shad White says he sees that delusion all the time. “Everybody is stealing a catalytic converter, or everybody is stealing millions of dollars. And since the typical white-collar fraudster is educated and well along in their career, they’re not going down without a fight. We have to be buttoned up on the case.” That’s why he’s quick to pay homage to his host of investigators. He describes them as the “tip of the spear,” agents adept at studying complex documents and confronting individuals in low-key interviews. “You’d be shocked at the number of people who will admit to our investigators that they’ve stolen money. Confessions lead to airtight cases, and that’s the kind of methodology that any white-collar investigator wants to use.” White says some of his investigators have taken pay cuts to work with him because “they see that what we’re doing is meaningful.”

So does White. Hailed as the Deep South’s first millennial to hold statewide office, Shad White was barely 32 when he took on his state auditor role, a ­special appointment made in 2018 by Mississippi’s then-Gov. Phil Bryant. He’s a Rhodes Scholar, Harvard Law School grad. A Baptist turned Catholic who isn’t shy about his faith and how it makes his job as state auditor easier: “One of the benefits of being a Christian is that you believe in this idea called truth with a capital T.” Surety helps when it’s time to enforce laws. “Sometimes it’s not clear what happened. Did that chair walk off? Did it get stolen? Did he get lost? But a lot of times, what happened is clear. Somebody stole the chair. It’s wrong, because the law says it’s wrong, and we have to enforce the law. Having that foundation of faith helps me do this job the same way every day, regardless of who we’re looking at.”

That’s tough when your former boss—the governor who put you in office—becomes enmeshed in the welfare scandal engulfing your state. At first, White described former Gov. Phil Bryant as the whistleblower in the case. As the drama continued to unfold and more details emerged, the state auditor has become uncharacteristically neutral. “I think anybody who’s reading the newspaper can say, ‘OK, people at DHS did this right, and they did this wrong. People in the governor’s office did this right, and they did that wrong.’ And they can decide.”

In Mississippi, the state auditor builds cases, but other agencies—the attorney general’s office, district attorneys, the FBI—decide which ones to prosecute. By the time an individual is in White’s hot seat, though, the case has been through the wringer: White, his team of investigators, an outside prosecutor. Maybe that’s why, so far, every violator White has pursued has chosen to plead guilty out of court. And when that happens, his team pulls out the megaphone.

“You want people to know if they see fraud, there’s a place they can bring it and be taken seriously,” explains White, whose office typically keeps more than 100 cases percolating. He’s also quick to throw up a mugshot on Twitter or push out a press release. “This isn’t about patting us on the back for putting a stop to an $800 scheme this week. It’s about scaring people who might think about stealing $800 next week.”

I don’t know if you’d call it stupidity or brazenness, but whatever it is, I’m shocked at what people will do, even knowing the potential of being caught.

THE OLD FORD DEALERSHIP on the outskirts of Aberdeen looks deserted, but on Sundays, some 200 members of Message in Me Ministry pile into the former showroom for worship services. It’s a nondenominational church that’s been around since 2012. If you call the ministry’s number, you’ll probably get Maurice Howard. He’s no longer mayor. Instead, Howard says he’s focused on improving the community in other ways, despite another arrest for embezzlement—embezzlement under contract. Howard allegedly failed to return a vehicle to car rental agency Enterprise. News of that latest development has some Aberdeen residents wondering how their ex-mayor’s suspended prison sentence might be affected.

And the contagion of Howard’s corruption continues to spread. The day after he pleaded guilty to embezzlement and left City Hall for good, three of Aberdeen’s aldermen got their own surprise from the state auditor’s office—demand letters for nearly $30,000. Howard’s salary was twice cut in 2018 when authorities cited him for being absent from daily responsibilities. When Howard won reelection in 2020, those three aldermen voted—illegally—to restore the lost wages.

White issued a statement explaining the aldermen would be responsible for paying that money back, just as the former mayor was responsible for paying back the money he admitted to embezzling. Bottom line? Corruption has consequences. “They were all operating as if these laws did not apply to them, and as if no one was watching. We are watching.”

Kim Henderson

Kim is a World Journalism Institute graduate and senior writer for WORLD. During her career as a homeschool mom, she worked as a freelance writer. Kim resides in Mississippi with her family.



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