The scope of the Commission's authority to conduct investigations is limited to:
- Violations of state law by public servants, including persons elected, appointed or employed by the State of Mississippi or local governments; and
- Failure to file or failure to file completely and accurately all financial disclosure information required in the Ethics in Government Laws.
Before the Ethics Commission can conduct an investigation, someone must file a sworn complaint with the Commission alleging a violation of law by a public official or public employee. All complaints, investigations and investigative records are confidential until and unless the Commission votes to remove confidentiality. The Ethics Complaint Form linked above must be used.
If a complaint filed with the Ethics Commission alleges a violation of law by a public servant, the Commission will authorize a confidential investigation of the complaint. In the course of an investigation, the Commission is empowered to administer oaths upon witnesses and issue and serve subpoenas on witnesses or for the production of records. When a complaint does not allege a violation of law, the Commission may dismiss the complaint without conducting an investigation.
Once the investigation is complete, the Commission must confidentially send a copy of the complaint to the person against whom it was filed, the respondent. The Commission is not able to protect the identity of the person who filed the complaint. The Commission must also take the following actions when applicable:
- If the complaint concerns a public official in the legislative branch, the Commission must refer the complaint, confidentially, to the public official and to the appropriate committee of the House of Representatives or the Senate having jurisdiction over the ethical conduct of its members and employees.
- If the complaint concerns a public official in the judicial branch, the Commission must refer the complaint, confidentially, to the public official and to the Commission on Judicial Performance or the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
- If the complaint concerns a public official in the executive branch or persons not covered in the paragraphs above, then the Commission must refer the complaint, confidentially, to the public official and to the head of the department or agency, if the person is in the executive branch, or, for other public officials, to the person about whom the complaint is filed.
Anyone receiving a complaint from the Ethics Commission has thirty (30) days within which to respond to the complaint. After receiving the response to the complaint or, if no response is received after thirty (30) days, the Commission may, in its discretion, terminate the matter or proceed as follows:
- The Commission may investigate the matter further.
- The Commission may enter a voluntary settlement agreement with the respondent in which the Commission determines an appropriate disposition has occurred and terminates the case.
- If the investigation produces probable cause to believe a violation of law has occurred, the Commission may set a hearing of the matter, after which the Commission may impose certain penalties.
The Commission may also refer the complaint with any evidence gathered during the investigation to the Attorney General and to the district attorney having jurisdiction, with a recommendation that it be considered for presentation to the grand jury.
The Commission may enforce the Ethics in Government Laws through hearings held before the Commission or an independent hearing officer, to determine whether a respondent violated the law and, if so, what penalty or penalties should be imposed, if any. Hearings in ethics cases are conducted according to the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure and the Mississippi Rules of Evidence. A violation must be proven to the Commission by clear and convincing evidence.
An elected official can be censured by the Commission and fined up to $10,000.00. The Commission may also recommend to the Circuit Court for Hinds County that the elected official be removed from office.
A nonelected public servant can also be censured by the Commission and fined up to $10,000.00. The Commission may also recommend to the Circuit Court for Hinds County that the nonelected public servant be removed from office, suspended, or subjected to a demotion or reduction in pay.
The Commission may also order restitution or other equitable or legal remedies to recover public funds or property unlawfully taken, as well as unjust enrichment, although not public funds. Any pecuniary benefit received by a public servant in violation of the Ethics in Government Laws may be declared forfeited by the Commission for the benefit of the governmental entity injured.
In the event a public servant does not appeal the decision or recommendation of the Commission, the Commission may petition the Circuit Court for Hinds County for the removal, suspension, demotion or reduction of pay of the public servant as provided by law.
Any contract made in violation of the Ethics in Government Laws may be declared void by the governing body involved or by a court of competent jurisdiction, and the contractor or subcontractor will receive no profit.
The Attorney General, the Commission, or any governmental entity directly injured by a violation of the Ethics in Government Laws may bring a separate civil lawsuit against the public servant or other person or business violating the provisions of this article for recovery of damages suffered as a result of such violation. Further, any pecuniary benefit received by or given by a public servant in violation of the Ethics in Government Laws must be declared forfeited by a circuit court of competent jurisdiction for the benefit of the governmental entity injured. In the discretion of the court, any judgment for damages or forfeiture of pecuniary benefit may include costs of court and reasonable attorney's fees.
The Ethics in Government Laws do not preclude civil or criminal liability under other laws or causes of action.
Any person aggrieved by a decision of the Commission made pursuant to its hearing procedures may appeal to the Circuit Court for Hinds County, Mississippi, and execution of the Commission's decision is stayed upon the filing of a notice of appeal.
Any person who violates the confidentially of a Commission proceeding is guilty of a misdemeanor and may be fined up to $1,000 and imprisoned for up to one year. Any person who willfully and knowingly files a false complaint with the Commission or who willfully and knowingly affirms, reports or swears falsely in regard to any material matter before the Commission is guilty of a felony and if convicted may be fined $1,000 to $10,000 and imprisoned for up to 5 years.