Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Single Question

Lynn Presley is the kind of man who seems destined to be a governor, congressman, or senator.  He is handsome, whip-smart, and charming.  As Chancery Clerk of Jackson County Mississippi (basically the Chief Financial Officer) Presley, knows every crack and crevice of the county's massive budget.  It turns out, when you know all the cracks and crevices, you know where to hid the money so you can steal it later.  In Presley's case, he did just that, and spent years in federal prison, after making a mind boggling confession to me, just months before he is charged with embezzlement.
Jackson County Courthouse

In 1997, as a young, overworked, understaffed bureau cheif at WLOX-TV in Pascagoula, I spend much of my day just trying to keep up with car crashes, stabbings and convenience store robberies.  Understanding the dark recesses of the painfully boring county budget is far off my radar.

"I'm tellin' ya boy," pontificates County Supervisor Burt Patterson, from his large desk in the back off of his Ocean Springs, Mississippi pharmacy, "Just ask some questions about the Chancery Clerk's office son, now that's your job right?"  Patterson, has always been ominously vague with me, often trying to guide me towards corruption with nudges that include few clues, but with the ominous admonishment of "ain't that your job, go on down to the sheriff's office and ask some questions!"  Without telling me who or what to ask about.

Today, Patterson is a bit more candid.  The County's port authority is in need of money from a fund managed by Presley, but for some reason he just won't give it up,  Patterson, has called for an audit but the results are not yet in.  Finally, stabbing the air with his stubby finger, he shouts, "go on down to Presley's office an' ask him, 'where's that port money at?!"

"Hello son," Presley greets me at his office, with a firm handshake, grabbing my elbow and pulling me in closely, "How are you young man?"  Presley, as always, is gracious, even during the late night budget hearings during the year, he is always kind, and welcoming.

"I'm good sir," I dribble nervously.  Presley cuts an impressive figure, and I often find myself tongue tied and intimidated by his sheer presence.  I often stumble into his office, dragging unwieldy camera gear, with cables dragging behind me like tin cans trailing from a married couples 1978 Ford Fairmont, and sweating, from long hours baking in the oppressive Mississippi sun.  I am often foraging around in a pair of rumpled Docker slacks, and Polo shirt that is often creased and always darkened by my own sweat.

Presley is dapper, and perfectly quaffed, not draped in an over sized seersucker suit or suspenders, like you might expect from deep in the deepest parts of the south, but rather, he cuts an impressive figure, in a tailored black suit, with expensive hand woven ties.

"What can I do you for you young man?"  He settles into his large leather chair, and bows the seat back, slapping his fine leather shoes onto his desk, and interlacing his fingers behind  his head.

"Um," I sputter, "it's the Port money," I slowly suggest, "uh-huh, uh-huh," he blurts with confidence, "well, I guess the question is: Why won't you just give it to them?"
He quickly jerks his feet off the desk, and unlaces his fingers from behind his distinguished brown and grey hair, and is sitting with his hands locked in front of him, "well son," he looks me in the eyes, "It's not there."  He says casually.

"Oh," I squint in confusion, "well.  Where is it?"  "Well, it's all over the place, I often use that money for loans." he suggests plainly."
"Um, to who?"
"Well, I loaned some to my cattle ranch, I loaned some to the mayor of Moss Point, I loaned some money to the guy who owns that fast food place in town."  He shuffles inside his desk and produces a copy of a check, but see, they always pay them back."
"Are these county loans?"
"no sir, no sir, I'd say they are personal loans,"
"Wait, you are making personal loans, to your cattle ranch and other people, out of county funds?"
"Yes sir, but as I mentioned young man, they always pay them back."
"But," dumbfounded, "I don't think you can do that."
"well the rules are foggy son, again, the money always gets put right back in."

As I wander to my car after the astonishing confession, Burt Patterson pulls up in his dark colored Crown Victoria, "Did you talk to Presley?" Dazed I drag my eyes to the portly pharmacist, "I did,"
"And?" He demands.
"He says he doesn't have the money, he says he loaned it out." I blurt.
Patterson's mouth slowly gapes open, he twists his head forward violently then screeches off.

As I tap away  at my computer in my worn Market Street office, the phone rings, it's Presley, "Hello young man," he says meekly, "that conversation we had today, my belief is:  That was off the record."
"Uh, well, no, not really sir."  After a significant pause he continues, "Do you intend of reporting on our conversation?"
"I do."
Another long pause, "Young man, let me warn you," his voice trails to a threatening whisper, and continues, "I took you into my confidence, in an effort to help you in the right direction, I had no intention for this story to be about me."  I gulp deeply, and spill a shaky response, "well sir, this story is about you now," and I gently click the phone down.

In 1997 Presley is charged with 8 counts of embezzlement and admitted to stealing $320,000 dollars from the county coffers.  He spent 84 months in federal prison.

I don't know why he admitted his shell game to me.  Perhaps he thought his kindness in the past would insulate him from a scurrilous report.  Perhaps he believed I wasn't smart enough to connect the dots, or, as some have suggested, maybe he felt guilty and simply wanted to be caught.  No matter the reason, I learned, sometimes, a simple question is enough to unravel the complicated truth.

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