Other than two campaign issues – voter I.D. and open primaries – the statewide race for secretary of state, who is responsible for a plethora of business services and functions, has been fairly low-key. Democratic incumbent Eric Clark will face Republican opponent Nick Walters in the Nov. 2 general election.
For a good dose of what the state’s secretary handles, check out the office’s Web site at www.sos.state.ms.us, which also provides numerous reports, including the hot potato of late: campaign contributions.
In addition to assisting with the incorporation process for all businesses and nonprofit corporations, and the formation of limited partnerships, limited liability companies and limited liability partnerships in Mississippi, the secretary of state’s office also regulates charitable organizations and professional fund-raisers, administration of the uniform commercial code and registration of about 30,000 notaries public in the state.
“Our office gets about 600 calls every day from people who want to check on information about corporations, non-profit organizations, UCC filings, and other business entities,” said Secretary of State Eric Clark. “Many callers want to know if stockbrokers are registered before doing business with them. Providing quality service every day to business is a vital part of what we do at the Secretary of State’s office.”
More than 200,000 corporations in Mississippi, including 30,000 nonprofit organizations, are listed with the state. Clark’s office was the first to store records via electronic imaging technology that allows for faster service.
“We’ve made dramatic improvements in the service we provide,” Clark said. “We’ve reduced hold time for our callers from 15 minutes to 15 seconds. We’ve speeded our turnaround on corporate and UCC filings from two weeks to 24 hours.”
The secretary of state’s office also works closely with law enforcement to enforce the state’s charities laws.
“It’s a logical extension for us to investigate violations of the Mississippi Charitable Solicitations Act,” Clark said. “If a charity is misusing money or is not registered, we enforce the law and assist in criminal prosecution. Charitable soliciting is a growing business.It’s important to protect the good name of charities from the scam artists out there.”
Recently, Clark and Hinds County Sheriff Malcolm McMillin combined forces to investigate the American Deputy Sheriff’s Association. The organization had representatives calling citizens for the first time and asking if they would like to support the association – again. The investigation led to the discovery of a professional fund-raising organization based in Florida, which kept 85% of all money collected; 15% went to the American Deputy Sheriff’s Association that was not affiliated with McMillin or the Sheriff’s Department, Clark said.
The secretary of state’s office recently shut down Recovery Lodge, which operates Bingo 51 in the Mart 51 Shopping Center in Jackson because it violated Mississippi’s charities laws.
The statewide office, which registers all stockbrokers and securities under the Mississippi Securities Act and is the state equivalent of the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, has become more aggressive enforcing the law, said Clark.
“We’re limited that we don’t have enough staff to go out and audit every broker, but when we get signals there are problems, we jump on it real fast,” Clark said.
Clark said there are several reasons for an increase in fraudulent activity.
“More people than ever are involved in the stock market today,” Clark said. “Throughout the ‘90s, Americans have enjoyed a bull market and many people have made a lot of money. Some people began to feel they could expect a 20% annual return on their investment from now on. That is unrealistic. Such expectations can make an investor vulnerable to unscrupulous persons.”
In addition to educating the public about suspicious investment opportunities, the secretary of state’s office also guards against embezzlement, he said.
“We take very seriously the job of regulating securities dealers because thousands of Mississippi citizens give them their life savings to invest for their children’s college education or for their own retirement,” Clark said. “Those citizens deserve to be secure in the honesty of their investment. We have to be careful about scam artists who might prey on citizens.”
Because the secretary of state’s office regulates securities industry in Mississippi, information about credentials and operating history of underwriters is on file.
Earlier this year, Clark took action against stockbroker Joseph R. Belew, 53, for misuse of investment funds. Belew turned himself in to the Hinds County Sheriff’s Department, and a judge froze his personal bank accounts at Clark’s request. He was later released after posting two $20,000 bonds on one charge each of embezzlement and securities fraud.
In July, Douglas Gulley Jr. of Ocean Springs was indicted on 35 counts of embezzlement involving more than $3 million in “investment” funds. Gulley, 51, who represented Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance, had clients in all three coastal counties, in Starkville, Hattiesburg, Baton Rouge, New Orleans and in Texas.
“In the case of Mr. Gulley, we were able to get a lot of money back for those people through his company,” Clark said. “In the cases of Belew and Gulley, the issue wasn’t registration. It was allegedly a misuse of funds – potentially robbing Peter to pay Paul, and illegally siphoning off money for the broker’s personal use.”
Also in July, Frank Hutton of Madison, a former securities representative of American Investment Services Inc., pleaded guilty to five counts of embezzlement and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Hutton, 29, was charged with the unauthorized use of customer accounts from August to December 1996 for more than $125,000.
“We hope cases like these serve as a deterrent to people who may consider engaging in criminal activity and send a message that they are going to get caught and punished,” Clark said. “Obviously, nobody can guarantee an investment is going to be successful. That’s not our job and that’s what the free market is all about. But we’re as serious as we can be about making sure it’s honest.”
Lobbying the Legislature for citizen-friendly bills is another responsibility of the secretary of state’s office, Clark said.
“In the first week of the 1999 session, legislators passed our campaign finance reform bill,” he said.
The secretary of state’s office recently presented a check for more than $4.9 million to the Department of Marine Resources from tideland lease revenue on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in FY1999. The previous year, $3.9 million had been collected. The secretary of state negotiates leases as trustee of the public trust tidelands. More than $17 million in tidelands lease revenue has been turned over to DMR for coastal projects in the past four years, Clark said.
“This money is collected from tideland leaseholders -primarily casinos – and returned to the people of the Gulf Coast,” Clark said. “By effectively managing our tidelands, this money helps improve the Gulf Coast quality of life and keep local taxes low.”
When pollsters failed to show up at the Madison County Democratic party primary election, the secretary of state’s office teamed up with the state attorney general’s office for a joint investigation.
The secretary of state’s office is also accountable for lobbyist re
gistration and reporting, the training of election offic
ials and the certification of election results.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.