Where’s the integrity in the election

Published 11:57 pm Thursday, August 16, 2007

Integrity is a tough word to pin down.

Ask a group of people to define the word, and you are likely to come up with a different definition for every person you ask.

My guess is, however, that all of the definitions would center on a core group of words such as honesty, responsibility and wholeness.

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Integrity was the word of the hour Tuesday night, as Democratic Party officials and election commissioners scrambled to find a solution to a malfunctioning memory card.

When tensions boiled over into a shouting match, one voice stood out to my ears above all the rest — Mr. Honesty himself, M.L. “Binkey” Vines.

When every other candidate was concerned about when the vote count would be complete, Vines was concerned with what he called “the integrity of the election.”

Vines asked, What is going to happen to the absentee ballots? Will they be stored in a secure place where no one could tamper with them?

“We want to make sure the votes are secure. I think it will secure the integrity of the election,” Vines said.

Here was the candidate on whom an entire election controversy was centered, a public official who admitted that he stole money from taxpayers and a man who was indicted on 13 counts of embezzlement suddenly becoming the voice of “integrity.”

Maybe Vines needs a review of the last three years of county audits before he opens his mouth and speaks words such as honesty and integrity.

Let’s take a look.

Each year the state requires an audit of the county, including the circuit clerk’s office.

On May 16, 2003, Vines’ office was cited by state auditors for not following Mississippi law in numerous instances, including not submitting funds into fee accounts, bouncing checks to the county and not providing adequate documentation which resulted in the disallowment of some $56,637.32 in fees.

Only then did Vines pay back $68,349.92 to the county.

More important, Vines agreed to maintain fee journals as required by state law.

Maybe he forgot he made that statement, because it took little more than a year, in August 2004, for auditors to cite Vines’ office for the very same infractions that he promised to correct in the 2003 audit.

Once again, Vines’ office was cited for missing documentation and not depositing funds into fee accounts.

In addition, the circuit clerk was cited for the unauthorized use of more than $200,000 in fees and fines, which Vines said he made in error.

This was the audit that led to Vines’ 13-count indictment and eventual guilty plea to three of those counts.

Once again, Vines promised to install procedures to alleviate mistakes and to hire a financial consultant.

Yet, in August 2005, auditors described infraction after infraction made by the Adams County Circuit Clerk’s office in the 2004 audit.

Vines was cited for eight infractions involving more than $197,000 of misused funds.

And in the 2005 audit, it was more of the same, including the deposit of cash receipts months and months after they were received by Vines’ office. In one instance, deposits marked Oct. 20, 2004, were not cleared by the bank until May 2006, 17 months later.

In the next few days, county supervisors may be confronted with the 2006 audit.

If Vines’ track record holds true, county residents will be faced with a report demonstrating his inability to keep his promises and to follow state law.

If Vines is so concerned about the integrity of the election, as he was Tuesday night, he only needs to look at his own track record and step down from the race.

If not, the voters should do it for him.

That, to me, would be the best definition of integrity.

Ben Hillyer is the web editor at The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.