Operation Pretense was a 1980s undercover investigation of corruption in county purchasing in Mississippi. The investigation resulted in felony convictions or guilty pleas involving 56 of the 410 supervisors in twenty-six of the state’s eighty-two counties.
Mississippi’s “beat system” of county administration led itself to widespread corruption. Each county was divided into five districts, or beats, each of which elected a supervisor who controlled all activities related to building and maintaining roads in the district. On routine matters, each supervisor had complete control of purchasing activities from initiation to payment approval, a system that was open to abuse, since it was easy to provide fraudulent documentation for materials that were not delivered. For purchases that could not be controlled directly, bids could easily be rigged. Counties were not required to keep inventory or asset records.
Rumors had long swirled that many supervisors were on the take, but sheriffs and county prosecuting attorneys had little stomach for pursuing supervisors who approved the budgets for those county offices. District attorneys, for their part, hesitated to offend politically powerful supervisors, and the state attorney general has no subpoena power. Thus, catching corrupt supervisors required involvement by the US attorneys and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as well as a sting that would catch supervisors in the act of taking payoffs from vendors.
Because John Burgess, a Pentecostal minister and businessman from Carthage, was a key figure in the investigation, the FBI code-named its investigation Operation Preacher’s Ten Percent Supervisors’ Expense, or Pretense. In 1982, after investing in a company that manufactured pipes, Burgess learned that the company’s salesmen had to pay kickbacks to supervisors to do business with counties. Burgess told federal authorities what he knew and agreed to cooperate in an undercover investigation. He opened an FBI front, the Mid-State Pipe Company, and taped conversations as he took kickbacks from several county supervisors. He ultimately testified against supervisors before grand juries and in two criminal trials.
Other key players in Operation Pretense were FBI special agents Jerry King and Cliff Chatham. Using the aliases Jerry Jacobs and Cliff Winters, these agents worked undercover as salesmen for Mid-State and conducted most of the stings. US attorneys James Tucker and John Hailman prosecuted the cases. State auditor Ray Mabus and his staff provided leads, secured records, and testified in court. Auditor Sheila Patterson’s testimony in the first trial, that of Perry County supervisor Trudie Westmoreland, was a very important factor leading to conviction. This trial demonstrated the strength of the government’s cases and caused many supervisors to seek plea agreements.
But Operation Pretense did not eliminate the corruption. Several supervisors continued their illegal practices even after they were indicted. One supervisor threatened to kill an undercover agent. The brother of an indicted vendor offered to help an indicted supervisor by “fixing” the jury if he went to trial. Boards of supervisors subsequently appointed relatives of convicted supervisors as their replacements.
Boosted by his Pretense involvement, Mabus was elected governor on a reform platform in 1987 and spearheaded the 1988 passage of legislation to reform county government. All counties were required to institute central purchasing systems and to hold referenda to choose between the beat and unit systems, under which professional managers would be in charge of all county activities.
Although the reform legislation constituted a major step forward, it also contained major flaws. Only forty-eight counties adopted the unit system, leaving thirty-four under the old beat system. Moreover, the law allows citizens to petition to put the question on the ballot again, and Jones and Lincoln Counties subsequently voted to go back to the beat system.
The conditions that Operation Pretense revealed seem almost unbelievable: the lack of rudimentary controls over purchases made with taxpayer money, the lack of county planning and control over roads, and supervisors’ almost unlimited power within their beats. Operation Pretense devastated lives, derailed political careers, and resulted in significant reforms in county government. However, those reforms were far from perfect or complete.
- James R. Crockett, Operation Pretense: The FBI’s Sting on County Corruption in Mississippi (2003)