STEVE PATTERSON CALLS IT QUITS
By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON - Auditor Steve Patterson, the statewide elected official responsible for making sure taxes of Mississippians are properly spent, agreed to resign Thursday after months of battling charges that he had submitted false information to keep from paying Hinds County taxes.
Patterson, age 43 and in his second term as state auditor, agreed to resign effective Nov. 1 and plead guilty to the misdemeanor charge of filing a false affidavit to keep from paying county taxes through the purchase of a car tag.
"This is a very sad time in state government," said Attorney General Mike Moore, whose office investigated the case and was prepared to present its evidence to the Hinds County grand jury Thursday. "My heart goes out to Steve Patterson and his family."
Longtime observers said it is the first time a statewide elected official has been forced from office in recent times. Public service commissioners and highway commissioners, who are elected from districts, have resigned under legal clouds in recent years.
In announcing Patterson's resignation and plea bargain, Moore said his office had planned to seek an indictment against Patterson on the more serious felony charge of defrauding the county out of money.
But Moore said his office agreed to Patterson's guilty plea to the lesser charge in order to have him quickly removed from office. The attorney general said it is important to get public officials who commit wrongdoings removed from office as soon as possible. A trial could have taken up to 18 months.
Attorney Joey Langston of Booneville, who represents Patterson, said he believes the state auditor would have been found innocent by a jury.
"This investigation has taken a tremendous toll on Patterson, his wife and children," Langston said. "He did not want to spend the next year defending this charge."
So instead, on Patterson's behalf, Langston negotiated with Moore's office this week and agreed to plead guilty to the misdemeanor and to resign. Patterson, a Union County native and former Tupelo resident, is expected to officially enter his plea next week - probably in County Court in Hinds. His sentence is expected to be twice the amount he avoided paying in taxes (about $1,600) by submitting the false affidavit. If convicted of a felony, Patterson could have been facing up to five years in prison.
Moore said Patterson's guilty plea and resignation will end the investigation.
The investigation centered around a Range Rover utility vehicle, which did not have a car tag for 18 months. When Patterson went to the Hinds County Courthouse to get the license plate renewed, he submitted a letter from a Greenwood businessman saying the car had been parked at his shop waiting for parts. Patterson had to sign an affidavit to that effect.
The car tag became a campaign issue last year as it was revealed that the vehicle was involved in a wreck while it was supposed to have been out of commission. At that time, Patterson paid the back taxes on the vehicle and was re-elected.
But the issue would not go away. One of Patterson's former top aides, Danny Banks, was indicted on the charge of embezzling $60,000 from the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police. During that investigation, it was revealed that the letter saying the vehicle was out of commission was not written by the Greenwood businessman. From that point, the investigation seemed to pick up steam.
As more information on the case was revealed this summer, Patterson said he did not know the letter, which was supplied by Banks, was false. Langston said Patterson told county officials when he signed the affidavit that the vehicle had been used "sparingly."
"I don't think he completely understood the vehicle had to be totally out of use," Langston said. "...It would have been a difficult burden for the prosecution to prove any criminal intent."
But on Thursday, Patterson decided not to force the Attorney General's office to prove criminal intent. He announced his resignation through a statement.
"I am taking this action (resigning and pleading guilty to the misdemeanor charge) after long and prayerful deliberation. My primary concern is my family and the ordeal and the misery that this controversy has dealt them," the statement read.
Patterson announced his decision to Moore and Gov. Kirk Fordice before 2 p.m. Thursday. Moore and Fordice later met to discuss the issue.
Afterward, Fordice said in a news release, "It is unfortunate anytime that a public official has to resign as a result of allegations of impropriety."
Fordice, a Republican, will appoint the Democrat Patterson's successor, who will serve out the reminder of the term until the year 2000. Fordice said he hopes to have someone in place before Patterson's Nov. 1 resignation date.
Patterson has been involved in Mississippi politics for much of his adult life. He served as an aide to the late U.S. Sen. John Stennis. He also served on governor William Winter's staff in the early 1980s and as executive director of the Tombigbee River Valley Water Management District in Northeast Mississippi. He also was involved in private business as an investment banker.
Before his troubles, Patterson was considered one of the leading contenders for governor in the year 2000.
His two terms as auditor and his tenure as chairman of the state Democratic Party gave him a strong base.
Johnnie Walls of Greenville, the current chairman of the state Democratic Party, said, "Steve Patterson is a person I have known a long time both politically and professionally. I hate to see him resign. I think he has been good as state auditor, but I support his decision."
Fellow Democrat, Attorney General Moore, said he never let Patterson's party affiliation enter into the investigation.
Despite the relatively small amount of money involved, Moore said the case is important,
"You have the state auditor, who is supposed to be the watchdog of tax dollars and it (case against Patterson) involved tax dollars," Moore said. "That ought to say it all."