Biden’s federal appointments stall in Mississippi, other southern states


Biden’s federal appointments stall in Mississippi, other southern states

As enters his third year in office, Mississippi still lacks his appointments for two U.S. attorneys, two U.S. marshals and a federal judge in the northern district.

Biden made nominations for three of the positions in the fall, but Sens. Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith did not return “blue slips” — the longstanding process by which home senators approve the president’s picks before Senate confirmation hearings are held.

Biden will have to resubmit nominations to the new Congress.

One of the appointments in limbo is Todd Gee for the U.S. attorney in the Southern District. If confirmed, Gee will inherit the ongoing welfare fraud investigation, one of the largest public corruption cases in history. He currently serves as the deputy chief of the Public Integrity Section of the U.S. Department of Justice, which prosecutes cases of public corruption, such as bribery of public officials.

Three people connected to the fraud have pleaded guilty to federal charges and have agreed to aid the prosecution in its ongoing probe, which is unlikely to take further shape until a permanent U.S. attorney is in place.

While naming Gee in September, Biden also nominated Michael Purnell, lieutenant and executive officer of the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol, and Dale Bell, a professional protection officer in the private sector, to serve as the north and south U.S. marshals, respectively. Hyde-Smith and Wicker have not indicated whether they support the nominations.

The president has not selected a U.S. attorney or a federal judge for the Northern District of Mississippi to replace U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mills, who entered senior status in 2021.

Biden, who received nearly 540,000 votes in Mississippi, has failed to fill many vacant federal positions across the South and in states with two Republican senators.

“It’s more complicated now than it used to be,” said Trent Lott, Mississippi’s U.S. senator from 1989 to 2007. “You have a Democratic president, you have two Republican senators, and you have a Democratic congressman, only one …The bottom line is, because you’ve got the divided government, it’s kind of slowing down things to a slow walk trying to come up with people that the Democrats like that the senators can accept.”

Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott remembers some of the issue differences he had with the late U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., during a reception for House Majority Whip U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., in Jackson, Miss., Monday, Aug. 27, 2018. However, Lott also recalled how strong their friendship was, and how supportive McCain would be on common issues.

Lott recalled entering the Senate in the late 1980’s and consulting longtime Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, who told the incoming senator, “Elections have consequences.”

Regardless of party affiliations, if the nominee is qualified, you should vote aye, Lott remembered Cochran saying.

“The atmosphere in Washington these days does not contribute to that kind of atmosphere, quite frankly. It’s very, very partisan, very divided,” Lott said.

The U.S. Southern District has lacked a U.S. attorney for much of the federal welfare investigation, which began when State Auditor Shad White turned over information gathered during his own investigation to federal authorities after making arrests in February of 2020. Former U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst resigned in January of 2021 and interim U.S. Attorney Darren LaMarca has led the office since.

Another empty seat exists on the traditionally conservative 5th U.S. Circuit Appels, which covers Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana and represents the last step before an appeal reaches the . There are eight district court judge vacancies in these states, none of which has pending nominations.

Across the country there are 87 total judge vacancies and 23 pending nominations.

This article first on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

How does IHL’s secret presidential search process compare to other southern states?


How does IHL’s secret presidential search process compare to other southern states?

The list of applicants for the top job at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, included a familiar name to many : Rodney Bennett, the recently departed president of University of Southern Mississippi.

Bennett’s name, along with 20 others, was published by a local newspaper earlier this year on July 14, his second-to-last day in the Dome. The governing board in Arkansas had released the list under the ’s open records law which mandates that the names of all applicants for public office, even unsuccessful ones, are subject to disclosure.

But in Mississippi, Bennett’s replacement was determined through a process that operated almost entirely in the dark.

Here, applicants for the position of college president are considered confidential and therefore exempt from public records requests. At USM, the campus didn’t know who was being considered for the job until late October when the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees suddenly cut the search short and announced it was permanently hiring Joe Paul, the interim president, without advertising the position.

Across universities in the Southeast, Mississippi and Arkansas represent two extremes – total secrecy and complete openness – in the often controversial search process for identifying leaders of public universities, according to a review by Mississippi Today of state statutes, governing board policies and articles. Arkansas is the only Southern state that has a search process that is entirely transparent, while Mississippi is one of three states that keep secret all applicants but the sole finalist.

Judith Wilde, a professor at George Mason University who studies presidential searches, described searches like this: “It’s sort of like in the ‘Wizard of Oz:’ At the end they raise the curtain, and there is one person.”

Even though the University of Florida was supposed to name multiple finalists under a new state law, the board announced only one, saying that out of the dozen candidates interviewed, all “requested complete confidentiality unless they were named as the sole finalist,” according to the Tampa Bay Times and Open Campus.

In Louisiana, applicants for public office are public record but in 2015, a judge ruled that Louisiana State University only needed to turn over the names of four applicants who were interviewed or withdrew their names from consideration.

And in some states, each individual university board can determine how secret the process is going to be. In Oklahoma, for example, Oklahoma State University’s board has maintained that it "must hold in strictest confidence the identities of applicants" while Northern Oklahoma College announced multiple finalists for president last year.

Wilde said that when university presidents are selected in secret, the community doesn’t get a chance to determine if they’re qualified for the job even though the position is among the highest paid in every state.

“Many of them are making more than a $1 million now, and yet there is no other public executive who is hired in secret,” Wilde said. “The president of the United States – they go through sometimes as much as a year of being vetted.”

At public universities, presidential searches are mainly led by governing boards – it is often considered a board’s most important function – but the process used to be more collaborative. Wilde said that in many states, boards used to form search committees of students, faculty and staff who would write and post ads, interview candidates, deliberate in public and invite finalists to meet the whole campus community.

Now, secrecy is the norm. In 2000, Mississippi was one of seven Southern states that allowed public universities to keep presidential applicants’ names confidential, according to an analysis by the National Association of College and University Attorneys. As of this year, that’s permitted by all but two states.

Wilde attributes this trend to governing boards’ increased reliance on executive headhunting firms that often require confidentiality in their contracts — to their benefit.

“When things are secret, the search firm can use the same candidates over and over again,” Wilde said, “without having anybody know that.”

Though headhunting firms often charge governing boards hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct searches, only about half provide background checks beyond the references that candidates provide, according to research by Wilde’s colleague at George Mason, James Finkelstein.

Many universities say that confidentiality is necessary to attract the best candidates who won’t want to risk inviting ire at their current jobs by publicly applying elsewhere. But research by Frank LoMonte, the director of UF’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, found that closed searches didn’t result in more candidates from highly ranked universities than open searches. His research, conducted in 2017, Georgia’s secret process to those in Tennessee and Florida which had more open searches at the time.

Rather, LoMonte found that closed searches tend to correlate with universities hiring from inside their system.

“Excluding the public from participation in the hiring process appears to accrue primarily to the benefit of ‘insider’ candidates,” he wrote in an op-ed published by the American Association of University Professors.

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