Editorial by Patrick Cagle
Originally published by The Clarion-Ledger on August 15, 2013
JobKeeper Alliance, a nonprofit partnership formed between the business community and labor to advocate for the creation and protection of good-paying jobs, recently called on state leaders to investigate the transfer of taxpayer money to the Bigger Pie Forum.
The money at issue is unused funds held by the no longer operational Institute for Technology Development, a nonprofit subsidized by Mississippi taxpayers for two decades to the tune of $32 million. ITD was given taxpayer funds to support its mission of “fostering technology-based economic development.” Now, ITD is giving proceeds earned from the use of this taxpayer money to Bigger Pie Forum and financing its fight against one of the state’s largest high-tech economic development projects, a clean-coal power plant currently being built in Kemper County.
Kelley Williams and Ashby Foote are at the center of this controversy. Williams and Foote are the driving forces behind Bigger Pie Forum and officers of ITD, according to forms the nonprofit filed with the IRS. Foote recently told the Jackson Free Press that “Bigger Pie Forum has used some profits from ITD businesses.” Foote’s statement raises serious ethical and legal questions. How does a publicly subsidized nonprofit generate a “profit?” Why are ITD’s unused funds not being returned to the state to repay the taxpayer money invested in the organization? Did taxpayer money go to Bigger Pie Forum at the direction of Foote and Williams?
The same Mississippi state law that grants authority to the Legislature to appropriate funds to ITD also grants the state auditor the authority to audit the publicly funded nonprofit. JobKeeper Alliance sponsored a petition signed by 1,489 citizens that calls on State Auditor Stacey Pickering to exercise his authority and investigate the transfer of money from ITD to Bigger Pie Forum. In response to our request, Pickering informed us that this issue was “on his radar” and that he plans to ask the U.S. Treasury inspector general to review its use of federal funds.
While we support his decision to call for a federal investigation, we caution him against abdicating his responsibility to the federal government. Instead, we urge Pickering to launch his own parallel investigation into ITD, review its use of more than $32 million in state funds, and determine whether the $5 million in assets the mothballed nonprofit reported to the IRS should be returned to the state.
Pickering has earned a reputation as a diligent watchdog of public funds, and we are confident that he will seize this opportunity to return millions of taxpayer dollars to state coffers. In the meantime, we urge Williams and Foote to stop using public money to fund their fight against a major economic development project that has created 6,000 Mississippi jobs.
It is ironic that Bigger Pie Forum is on the public dole, given that the group’s purported mission is to promote a less-government, free-market philosophy explicitly opposed to taxpayer-funded subsidies for private business.
We can finally pull the curtain back on this shadowy group and see it is costing Mississippi jobs while taking government handouts. The only question left is why.