There is simply no other way to put it: A whitewash took place on the Mississippi Today website Friday . The online newspaper funded by Jim Barksdale and Dickie Scruggs posted a story that whitewashed Mississippi Education Superintendent Dr. Carey Wright's awarding contracts to her cronies. Dr. Wright granted an interview to Mississippi Today Reporter Kate Royals, while avoiding JJ and the Clarion-Ledger when they published critical stories of how these contracts were awarded and who received them. Ms. Royals "reported":
No one said there was any duplication of work nor accused Dr. Wright of any such thing. Perhaps Ms. Royals should actually read the stories she is supposedly covering for MT.
State education superintendent Carey Wright said all of the IT work performed by two companies with ties to her former coworkers in Maryland was necessary, and there was no duplication of work.
Wright came under fire this week for the awarding of hundreds of thousands of dollars to Blue Sky Innovative Solutions, LLC and DataOne IT Solutions to work on a new data system and a reorganization of the IT department over the past three years.
Wright also hired John Q. Porter, the past president of Blue Sky and a former coworker from her time in Maryland, as deputy state superintendent in 2015. The Mississippi Department of Education had contracted with Blue Sky in 2014 for more than $200,000, including one 2014 contract that was modified from $29,050 to $69,450, adding only “continued review and oversight” and “development and implementation of a plan of action” to the scope of work.
“There is no way that we could be doing some of the things we are doing now around data if we had not had the work of Dr. Porter and his team,” Wright said.
Past President? That is news. Ms. Royals neglected to report that he is listed as an owner on the company's corporate documents filed in Maryland. Whether the omission is intentional is something known only to Ms. Royals. It's also amusing that Ms. Royals only published the total amount of money paid to Blue Sky. Ms. Royals conveniently left out the fact that MDE awarded contracts to Blue Sky that were only a few months in length in ways that were required to avoid certain bidding and reporting thresholds. The applicable term is "structuring".
Unfortunately for the readers, Ms. Royals can't even get her basic facts straight. The "$69,450" is the amount of the increase and not the final amount as she reports. The final amount of the contract was $98,500. Keep in mind the contract was not extended. That is important because the contract was clearly structured to avoid competitive bidding and any review by the State Personnel Board. One can only assume this error by Ms. Royals was unintentional in nature. Ms. Royals continues:
The blog Jackson Jambalaya first reported on the contracts Tuesday, raising questions about issues with Porter's salary and the companies' contracts with the department. Calls to Porter and Elton Stokes with DataOne were not returned.There is no mention of the Clarion-Ledger story. It's much easier to just mention a blog than include the fact that the state's major newspaper reported this story as well, if one is trying to make any reporting of these contracts seem less legitimate. One can imagine her editors thinking "that is just a blogger, how dare he question anything much less write about it. Bloggers aren't legitimate anyway". Make no mistake. JJ made every effort to get this story right. JJ obtained over 100 pages of records from MDE and reviewed the minutes available online. This correspondent probably spent over a dozen hours reviewing records and writing last week's post.
The "article" then gets around to reporting on the State Auditor Angle. (Here is the link to the JJ post and the Clarion-Ledger story.)
The auditor’s office did get involved in May when Stacey Pickering wrote a letter to Wright. It stated Porter’s salary was a potential violation of the law that states certain employees’ salaries cannot exceed 150 percent of the Governor’s salary. As a result, the board voted at its May meeting to decrease Porter’s salary from $195,000 to $183,000 after receiving the letter, according to The Clarion-Ledger.A copy of the letter was first posted on this website but we will not quibble about such things when Ms. Royals is misreporting change orders and contract amounts. Ms. Royals then moves on to one Mr. Elton Stokes.
The Education Department also contracted with Elton Stokes, who's currently listed as an administrator in the Montgomery County School District in Maryland where Wright worked as an associate superintendent before coming to Mississippi. According to meeting minutes from January of last year, the board voted unanimously during executive session to hire Stokes as a consultant for an amount not to exceed $93,009.60. The board also voted to award one of Porter’s contracts for the same IT work the same day.
Wright said where Porter’s company focuses on IT infrastructure, Stokes is a “data warehouse guru.”
“There’s nobody inside the department that had the data warehouse skills … We advertised and advertised and advertised for that position, and no one that’s got the skill set to do it was willing to come to Mississippi,” Wright said. “… Part of your integrity as a department is the quality of data you produce.”The part about Mr. Stokes being an employee of Dr. Porter at Blue Sky was conveniently left out of the article, despite Mr. Stokes admitting in a video that he went to Mississippi as an employee of Blue Sky and thus Dr. Porter. Readers would never know that Dr. Porter was signing contracts and invoices for his Blue Sky employee while Dr. Porter was the Deputy Superintendent. The LinkedIn page stating Mr. Stokes was an employee at Blue Sky was suddenly removed.
Guess what else Ms. Royals left out? Read the quote about Dataone IT Solutions again:
Wright came under fire this week for the awarding of hundreds of thousands of dollars to Blue Sky Innovative Solutions, LLC and DataOne IT Solutions to work on a new data system and a reorganization of the IT department over the past three years.Dataone is owned by Sharon Semper Stokes although the contracts are signed by "Sharon Semper". Ms. Royals doesn't report that she is the wife of Elton Stokes or that the contracts for the company have the same address as that of Mr. Stokes' home. All Ms. Royals had to do was look at the actual contracts, corporate registration, and property tax records - basic skills for any competent reporter.
So get this straight. Dr. Wright gets some heat from the media over some no-bid contracts given out to her cronies (and usually behind closed doors) and runs to her friendly Mississippi Today reporter. Said reporter once worked for The Parents' Campaign. The reporter publishes a story that gets basic facts wrong while omitting other key facts. A reader must question at some point whether this was indeed a serious attempt at reporting a story or if it was indeed a whitewash.
Ms. Royals is a competent reporter. She busted JPS for awarding a fishy multi-million dollar consulting contract nearly a year ago. However, she is no longer working at the Clarion-Ledger but is working for an online newspaper owned by Jim Barksdale and Dickie Scruggs. The same Jim Barksdale who funds the Parents' Campaign. Stories such as this one are what some feared when the debut of Mississippi Today was announced. The thought of Dickie Scruggs controlling journalism in Mississippi is troubling as well. Shades of Gail Wynand.
One can only question why Ms. Royals got the final amount of a contract wrong, failed to report that an employee of Dr. Porter received consulting contracts, the employee's wife also received a consulting contract, and the contracts were all structured in ways that appear they were designed to avoid scrutiny.
It is clear after reading this story that there will be no objective reporting on education at MT. This story was nothing but a whitewash of something that would raise serious questions at any other government agency. Did anyone forget Chris Epps? Notice that the story does not link any reported stories from the CL or JJ. JJ tries to link such stories whenever they are reported on this website. JJ trusts the readers to read all the information they desire and form their own opinion. It is called trusting the readers. What a concept.
Then there is Dr. Carey Wright. This correspondent has called and emailed Dr. Wright's office before publishing these recent stories about Dr. Porter and the salary increases. One expects a "no comment" from the subject of a story. However, Dr. Wright doesn't just issue a no-comment.
Dr. Wright whined in a letter to the newspaper that a reporter didn't call her about a story and got basic facts wrong. This correspondent called Dr. Wright the next day before posting a story about the many raises given at MDE under Dr. Wright's tenure. Dr. Wright never answered phone calls or emails. However, she issued a press release later that day about "misinformation". Apparently Dr. Wright likes to have her cake and eat it too. She will complain if a reporter doesn't call her about a story but then refuse to talk to one if he does and send out a press release about "misinformation". Can one say "cheap shot"? What was interesting was her press release ignored the story itself and focused on something else entirely different. It's called creating a straw man argument.
She used the straw man again in the MT whitewash. JJ and the CL never reported on "duplicative" contracts but one wouldn't know that from reading Dr. Wright's comments. The stories reported on the structuring, relationships, and possible cronyism. Duplication was not even mentioned. Dr. Wright sent a written statement to the CL and none to this website. Dr. Wright then runs to a friendly reporter and presto, we have ourselves a whitewash.