Memphis activist, former MDE employees among contract recipients

Jackson, Miss. (WJTV) — After a report from the state auditor claims that the Mississippi Department of Education awarded contracts improperly MDE is responding.

On Thursday, the Mississippi Office of the State Auditor released a compliance audit report for the fiscal year 2015. OSA said there were misspent federal grant dollars in fiscal year 2015 and fiscal year 2016.

“If we discover one red cent that has been misspent and diverted from our children and teachers, we will not hesitate to take full legal action against those involved,” said State Auditor Stacey Pickering.

MDE said they didn’t do anything improper to their knowledge.

Dr. Felicia Gavin, Mississippi Department of Education chief operations officer, said MDE also discovered through their own investigation that some employees were colluding to improperly use federal grant money.

They said they turned those finding over to the auditor. MDE said three employees were terminated because of that.

“We welcome the Office of the State Auditor’s inquiry into contracts at the MDE. We will cooperate fully with any requests for information, just as we did over a year ago,” said Dr. Carey Wright, state superintendent of education.

WJTV took a closer look at some of the vendors involved cited in the Auditor’s report. They include companies like DataOne Services LLC and Elton Stokes Jr. who made more than $134,000 in 2015 for two contracts. While Stokes worked for DataOne, he also claimed to work at Blue Sky Innovations, a consulting company owned by Dr. John Porter. Dr. Porter and his company were awarded more than $293,000 over a two year period.

“It appears to be very much identical work being done at the same period of time out of those same pools,” said Auditor Pickering.

Dr. Gavin at MDE responded saying, “Those contracts were for different scopes of work and you are allowed to enter into multiple contracts as long as the scope of work is different.”

One of the contracts awarded to Dr. Porter’s company was valued at around $96,000 and stipulated that Blue Sky would conduct a national search for a new Chief Information Officer at MDE. In June 2015, Dr. Porter himself accepted that job.

At Thursday’s news conference, Auditor Pickering said that, while not necessarily illegal, State Superintendent Dr. Carey Wright has had relationships with some of the contract recipients. “Ii think Dr. Wright has gone on record saying she’s worked professionally with some of the vendors in question,” responded Dr. Gavin.

On Friday, WJTV requested an interview with Dr. Wright but was told she’s out of state and not available for interview, not even over the phone. WJTV also reached out to all of the vendors listed in the OSA report. None returned our calls.

That includes Joseph Kyles – a community activist in Memphis. If you recognize that name, it’s because Kyle’s was arrested in August 2016, accused of choking his girlfriend and sending her to the hospital because she wouldn’t agree to have an abortion. His company, The Kyles Company, made more than $214,000, billing the state for IT related products. However, because MDE can’t find invoices or accounts for those products, the State Auditor doesn’t know if they were ever actually received.

The OSA report on the MDE Compliance Audit for FY15 can be found here.

The OSA report on the MDE Forensic Audit can be found here.

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