Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Sid Salter: Federal prosecutor James Tucker stood tall challenging Mississippi’s corruption

 When retired federal prosecutor James B. Tucker died on Dec. 28 at the age of 82, the cause of justice and the rule of law in Mississippi lost a mighty warrior. Tucker was a trusted, impeccable source for me in the 1980s when I covered a copious number of public corruption trials in the U.S. District Court of Southern Mississippi.

Tucker was a man of impeccable personal and professional integrity and battled corruption with courage, vigor, and a sense of moral outrage. For Mississippi public officials who thought it appropriate to dip into the public till Tucker was a worthy and pine knot-tough adversary.


But as we came to trust each other, I gained a fascinating look into the complex undercover investigation that came to be called “the Pretense Scandal” in Mississippi – which unearthed pervasive kickbacks and bribery in county government in the state.


We rarely talked other than off-the-record conversation. He demanded confidentiality. “If you burn me, we’ll never talk again,” was something Tucker said early and often in our conversations. What I learned was their there existed in that day a sense of entitlement among local officials to solicit and accept bribes and kickbacks in the conduct of the public’s business.


But as we came to trust each other, I gained a fascinating look into the complex undercover investigation that came to be called “the Pretense Scandal” in Mississippi.


How pervasive was that system? Some 56 of the state’s 410 county supervisors representing 26 of the state’s 82 counties were convicted or pleaded guilty to either federal or state corruption charges. Another 12 vendors selling things like culverts or motor grader blades to county supervisors and paying kickbacks for the privilege were implicated in the probe – several convicted and some getting charges dismissed for rolling over on the elected officials.


Tucker and John Hailman, his counterpart in the U.S. District Court of Northern Mississippi, were both chiefs of the criminal divisions of their respective federal jurisdictions during the “Pretense” probe that lasted from 1984 through 1989. The pair wrote the book nationally for federal prosecutions of government corruption cases in the Department of Justice manual “Investigating and Prosecuting Public Corruption.”


University of Southern Mississippi Professor Emeritus James Crockett in 2003 wrote “Operation Pretense: The FBI’s Sting on County Corruption in Mississippi,” which focused on public corruption in the state’s county government system. The “Pretense” scandal propelled former State Auditor Ray Mabus to political prominence, positioning him to win a term as governor. He would later serve as U.S. ambassador and as Secretary of the Navy.


The “Pretense” scandal further changed the atmosphere for county officials regarding purchasing accountability and transparency in county record-keeping and brought about a far-flung debate over the merits of the country unit system versus the “beat” or district form of governance.


Tucker devoted 30 years to his distinguished service to the Justice Department, eventually serving as the Southern District U.S. Attorney in Mississippi.

He served 30 years as a Judge Advocate General officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve, retiring as a captain. For 25 years, Tucker taught trial practice at the Mississippi College School of Law.


Tucker’s final career stop was at the prestigious Butler Snow law firm in Ridgeland, where he practiced law for 20 years.


After his retirement from the Justice Department, he would call on occasion to either applaud or criticize a column. Still, mostly his calls were like the earlier days of our relationship – he truly enjoyed explaining the finer points of both the law and the tactics prosecutors used to go after those who broke the law.


James Tucker was one of the good guys. I think back to “Pretense” and the trials of so many public officials who abused the public trust. Tucker, Hailman, and that relatively small group of federal prosecutors in the Southern and Northern districts of this state succeeded where state prosecutors, for the most part, had not – by putting either the fear of God or the fear of time in the federal prison in those who stole the taxpayers’ money.


The net result was that the culture slowly changed in Mississippi. State and local officials began to demand accountability of public officials who crossed the line.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at



Anonymous said...

Need another Operation Pretense, starting in Hinds County and then moving north to Madison County. The lessons have been forgotten by the current group of crooks, errr elected officials. Otherwise, Airwave and Warnock would not have driven expensive foreign cars while receiving the public dole.

Anonymous said...

great lawyer and even better father. the latter being the most important.

Anonymous said...

I knew James back in the day, too. Proud to have been his friend and occasional associated counsel. One of my former law partners and I called his secretary/assistant "Fang", which we had to explain to James one day when he overheard us. She was an awesome gatekeeper for his office, and he enjoyed the laugh with us.


Anonymous said...

An absolute standup guy and a model for every young lawyer to emulate.

Mississippi needs many, many more James Tuckers.

Anonymous said...

I had the pleasure of working with this man and he was one of the best people ever put on this Earth and there will not be another. RIP

Anonymous said...

James Tucker was a great attorney and person. Class act and will be greatly missed.

Anonymous said...

Sad to hear he passed.

I learned much from that man.

He was a true saint.

Thinking of him and his family and friends.

Anonymous said...

Ever notice how frequently people like Salter and Cleveland write about their previous association with the 'now deceased'. Of course you can say most anything in that regard and there's nobody to challenge you.

Governor Fordice once took me into his confidence and shared something with me that nobody else on earth knows to this day and I will keep the secret. (Prove me wrong)...

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Trollfest '07 was such a success that Jackson Jambalaya will once again host Trollfest '09. Catch this great event which will leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Othor Cain and his band, The Black Power Structure headline the night while Sonjay Poontang returns for an encore performance. Former Frank Melton bodyguard Marcus Wright makes his premier appearance at Trollfest singing "I'm a Sweet Transvestite" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Kamikaze will sing his new hit, “How I sold out to da Man.” Robbie Bell again performs: “Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Bells” and “Any friend of Ed Peters is a friend of mine”. After the show, Ms. Bell will autograph copies of her mug shot photos. In a salute to “Dancing with the Stars”, Ms. Bell and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith will dance the Wango Tango.

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In the spirit of helping those who are less fortunate, Trollfest '09 adopts a cause for which a portion of the proceeds and donations will be donated: Keeping Frank Melton in his home. The “Keep Frank Melton From Being Homeless” booth will sell chances for five dollars to pin the tail on the jackass. John Reeves has graciously volunteered to be the jackass for this honorable excursion into saving Frank's ass. What's an ass between two friends after all? If Mr. Reeves is unable to um, perform, Speaker Billy McCoy has also volunteered as when the word “jackass” was mentioned he immediately ran as fast as he could to sign up.

In order to help clean up the legal profession, Adam Kilgore of the Mississippi Bar will be giving away free, round-trip plane tickets to the North Pole where they keep their bar complaint forms (which are NOT available online). If you don't want to go to the North Pole, you can enjoy Brant Brantley's (of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance) free guided tours of the quicksand field over by High Street where all complaints against judges disappear. If for some reason you are unable to control yourself, never fear; Judge Houston Patton will operate his jail where no lawyers are needed or allowed as you just sit there for minutes... hours.... months...years until he decides he is tired of you sitting in his jail. Do not think Judge Patton is a bad judge however as he plans to serve free Mad Dog 20/20 to all inmates.

Trollfest '09 is a pet-friendly event as well. Feel free to bring your dog with you and do not worry if your pet gets hungry, as employees of the Jackson Zoo will be on hand to provide some of their animals as food when it gets to be feeding time for your little loved one.

Relax at the Fox News Tent. Since there are only three blonde reporters in Jackson (being blonde is a requirement for working at Fox News), Megan and Kathryn from WAPT and Wendy from WLBT will be on loan to Fox. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both and a torn-up Obama yard sign will entitle you to free drinks served by Megan, Wendy, and Kathryn. Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required. Just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '09 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

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Jackson Jambalaya is the home of Trollfest '07. Catch this great event which promises to leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Sonjay Poontang and his band headline the night with a special steel cage, no time limit "loser must leave town" bout between Alan Lange and "Big Cat"Donna Ladd following afterwards. Kamikaze will perform his new song F*** Bush, he's still a _____. Did I mention there was no referee? Dr. Heddy Matthias and Lori Gregory will face off in the undercard dueling with dangling participles and other um, devices. Robbie Bell will perform Her two latest songs: My Best Friends are in the Media and Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be George Bell. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger will host "Pin the Tail on the Trial Lawyer", sponsored by State Farm.

There will be a hugging booth where in exchange for your young son, Frank Melton will give you a loooong hug. Trollfest will have a dunking booth where Muhammed the terrorist will curse you to Allah as you try to hit a target that will drop him into a vat of pig grease. However, in the true spirit of Separate But Equal, Don Imus and someone from NE Jackson will also sit in the dunking booth for an equal amount of time. Tom Head will give a reading for two hours on why he can't figure out who the hell he is. Cliff Cargill will give lessons with his .80 caliber desert eagle, using Frank Melton photos as targets. Tackleberry will be on hand for an autograph session. KIM Waaaaaade will be passing out free titles and deeds to crackhouses formerly owned by The Wood Street Players.

If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

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