Auditor sees tough times ahead

Published 5:00 am Thursday, September 24, 2009

State Auditor Stacey Pickering warned Wednesday of difficultfinancial days ahead for the state and tough decisions that willhave to be made by government leaders.

The goal, he said while speaking to the Brookhaven Kiwanis Club,will be for leaders to learn how to do more with less and not losethe functionality of services. Also, that will need to be donewithout the help of federal stimulus funds that have been used tocover some budget holes this year.

“In 2011, we’re not going to have stimulus dollars to plug thegaps,” Pickering said.

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Following a round of funding cuts recently by Gov. HaleyBarbour, the state auditor said he expected more cuts if thestate’s economic picture does not improve. Pickering urged supportfor leaders as they face the difficult times.

In other discussion points, Pickering touted his office’ssuccess rate in investigating fraud, embezzlement ormisappropriation of public funds by public employees. He said thereis a 95 percent success rate by investigators in seeking guiltypleas or jury verdicts.

“They know what the person did by the time they get throughputting the case together,” said Pickering, adding that there are174 active cases being investigated by his office in the state.

Pickering briefly discussed a Jones County case that resulted ina guilty plea Tuesday by a chancery clerk’s office employee.

In it, the person had embezzled $268,000. The defendant wasordered to serve seven years of a 12-year sentence and to makerestitution to the county, the auditor said.

Pickering said the prison sentence “sends the right message,”particularly in difficult economic times when governments arehaving to make the best use of limited revenue.

“Public corruption is taken very seriously,” Pickering said.

In a related matter, Pickering said his office is continuing toinvestigate cases of fraud in connection with Hurricane Katrina. Hesaid there are 300 active cases being investigated by amulti-agency task force, and that group is producing successfulresults as well.

“We’re batting a thousand in our Katrina conviction rate,”Pickering said.

Pickering said the state received $24 billion in fundingassistance after Katrina, with a predicted fraud rate of 10 to 12percent. However, the actual fraud rate was only half apercent.