GREENWOOD — In the case of Shad White, looks are definitely deceiving.
The clean-cut 34-year-old state auditor for Mississippi looks more like a junior insurance salesman than one of the most aggressive watchdogs of the public’s money in more than three decades.
But in the two years he has served as state auditor, White has earned the reputation of a smart, principled public servant who, as one Leflore County supervisor observed, “doesn’t play around.”
Since White’s appointment in July 2018, the State Auditor’s Office has gotten more aggressive in chasing after misspent or embezzled funds than it did under his predecessor, Stacey Pickering. It’s not that Pickering, now head of the Mississippi Veterans Affairs Board, was necessarily a slouch, although he did make some poor decisions with his use of campaign finance money. It’s just that White is more dogged about going after those who use their public office or public funds to enrich themselves or their friends.
White has averaged twice as many formal demands annually as Pickering did in his final eight years in the job. The amounts sought are also up 45%.
White’s Investigations Law Enforcement Division has been collecting about $2 million a year, nearly 50% more than it did under Pickering’s leadership.
There’s only one area where White’s performance trails Pickering’s. Recoveries from audits of the state’s chancery and circuit clerks, which routinely get flagged for keeping too much of the fees they collect or using those fees for unauthorized expenses, is down 78%. Those recovered amounts, though, are small when compared to what can be generated by going after stolen funds. Plus, says spokesman Logan Reeves, the division that does these county audits has been turning more of its findings over to the investigations division for a sterner look into the clerks’ activities.
The similarities between White and Ray Mabus, a fearless state auditor from the 1980s who later became governor, are uncanny, except for their party affiliations. White is a Republican who is well-connected with the GOP establishment, as evidenced by the appointment he received from former Gov. Phil Bryant, himself a previous state auditor. Mabus is a longtime Democrat who still regularly criticizes the GOP leadership in his home state.
Both Mabus and White grew up in small Mississippi towns — Mabus in Ackerman, and White in even smaller Sandersville. They both earned their undergraduate degrees from the University of Mississippi, law degrees from Harvard and received or were offered scholarships to study abroad because of their academic achievements.
Like Mabus, White strikes fear into the hearts of shady public officials and those in the private sector who conspire with them to rip off the taxpayers.
Mabus made his mark by collaborating with the FBI on a sting operation that snagged more than 50 county supervisors in 25 counties for taking kickbacks in return for rigging bids and authorizing payment on goods never delivered.
White’s big fish, so far, is his probe into the state Department of Human Services, where his investigators turned up almost $100 million of allegedly questionable spending of federal welfare money, making it potentially the largest public corruption scandal in state history.
But those are not the only toes on which White has been willing to step.
He’s taken the Mississippi Blues Commission to task for its awarding of no-bid contracts and the Mississippi Department of Education for inaccurate or deceitful recordkeeping. Recently, he warned state agencies and local governments that his office and outside auditors it has hired will be checking behind how the $1.25 billion gusher of federal coronavirus relief money gets spent.
“The State Auditor’s office,” White concluded in an op-ed column explaining his pandemic-related initiative, “has uncovered some of the largest and most complex embezzlement schemes in state history recently. If you’re a politician or official who wants to steal, we look forward to making you an example of what we can do in this case, too.”
Those with sticky fingers had better heed White’s words. He has shown no hesitation to go after whoever and wherever public money is being squandered or stolen.
Does White have higher political ambitions?
Holders of the auditor’s job frequently do. White’s not been tested in a campaign yet, so it’s not clear how he would do in a tough election contest. After being appointed to the auditor’s post initially, he ran unopposed for a full four-year term in 2019.
The courthouse crowd doesn’t necessarily love an aggressive watchdog, but the public does.
White could use the auditor’s job as a springboard to higher office the way Bryant and Mabus did. But it’s hard to see him doing any more public good in another elected position than what he’s doing now.
Tim Kalich is editor and publisher of The Greenwood Commonwealth.