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Q&A: Tom Hood, Executive Director/Chief Counsel, Mississippi Ethics Commission

Chief of Ethics

Hood oversees changes at Ethics Commission

In 2003, Tom Hood arrived at Mississippi Ethics Commission, and it didn’t take long for him to make an impression. Three years later, he was named executive director and chief counsel of the organization charged with weighty responsibility of ensuring high ethics in government law. During his tenure, there have been sweeping administrative changes and turnover at the commission, and the Ethics Reform Bill, championed by Hood, became law. It isn’t as if Hood wasn’t a proven commodity before coming to the commission. He has practiced law in the private sector and served as a prosecutor under former Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore.

Q —  Give us a brief overview of the Mississippi Ethics Commission. What are its duties, responsibilities and authority?

A — The Commission’s three primary roles within the ethics in government law are (1) to handle Statements of Economic Interest filed by public officials and candidates, (2) to investigate sworn complaints alleging violations of the Ethics in Government Law and hold administrative hearings and impose penalties for those violations and (3) to issue written opinions to government officials and employees advising them on how to comply with the ethics in government law. The Ethics Commission also enforces the Open Meetings Act and issues decisions on the Public Records Act.

Q —  Tell us your role as executive director and chief counsel of the Commission. What’s your “typical” day?

A — I manage the agency and make recommendations to the commission on virtually all of their actions. I’m not a member of the commission, and I don’t get a vote on their decisions. I am their employee, and I am one of their attorneys. It’s my job to make sure the commission members have all the information and advice they need to make informed decisions at their monthly meetings. I draft the documents the commission members vote on, such as opinions, orders, reports and other rulings. In a typical day I also answer a lot of questions from attorneys, government employees, reporters and members of the general public. I’m also responsible for managing the agency’s budget and other administrative affairs.

Q —  Tell us about the numerous administrative changes and significant turnover in the makeup of the Commission while under your leadership.

A — When I was initially hired by the Ethics Commission in 2003, half of the eight commission members had been on the commission for more than 20 years. At this point only one member has been here longer than me. Fortunately, the great commission members we lost were replaced by other dedicated public servants. I am very thankful to work with some great people.

Administratively, we’ve had some major changes since the Ethics Reform Bill passed in 2008. It added new responsibilities under the Open Meetings Act and Public Records Act and also fundamentally changed the way we enforce the ethics in government law. It also mandated electronic filing of disclosure forms. That entailed a large IT project, which we completed earlier this year. We’ve done all this with no increase in staff while weathering numerous budget cuts.

Q —  What would you count as your highest achievement since becoming executive director?

A — It’s probably the passage and implementation of the Ethics Reform Bill. It has dramatically increased the scope and responsibility of this agency and provided a real service to the public.

Q —  Lately there have been numerous headlines, including in the MBJ, alleging violations of both the Opening Meeting Act and the Public Records Act. A good example would be the recent Mississippi Public Service Commission hearings involving Entergy Corporation’s practices and Mississippi Power Co.’s proposed Kemper County power plant. In your opinion, are these acts “under siege,” and have you, indeed, received more complaints in this area than in the past?

A —  I would not say those acts are under siege. Mississippi has made significant progress over the last three decades when it comes to open government and freedom of information. That’s not to say there aren’t problems. We have a long way to go before we get where we need to be. But things are improving, especially over the last couple of years since the Ethics Commission got involved. I think we’ve been successful in raising awareness about open government issues. Private citizens are learning more about their right to information, and government officials are much more aware of their duty to operate in the open.

Q —  How, if at all, has your earlier career in private legal practice and as a prosecutor under former Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore influenced and/or benefited you as head of the Commission?

A — I began my legal career by prosecuting white-collar crime and public corruption cases under Attorney General Mike Moore. That was great experience for the job I have now. I learned how to manage investigations and focus on relevant evidence. Those skills are indispensable to our investigative role. Working in the Attorney General’s Office I learned a lot about state and local government, and I made many friends and other contacts whom I still encounter in my work today.

Q —  Some may not know that your brother is current Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood. Do you ever turn to your brother for advice and/or support? And, what’s something about Jim Hood people might be surprised to learn?

A — Actually, my brother and I have very little professional interaction. The Ethics Commission, like every other state agency, works with the Attorney General’s Office on a regular basis, but that’s all handled through the normal channels. We’re both pretty busy, and we don’t get a chance to talk very often. I’m not sure there’s anything about Jim that would surprise people. What you see is pretty much what you get with him.

Q —  Why did you choose the legal field, and if you hadn’t become an attorney, what might you have chosen to do?

A — I chose the law because my father is a lawyer, and he and my mother taught my sister, my brother and me the value and importance of helping others. I saw the law as an opportunity to serve. That’s also why I went to work in government.

If I hadn’t become a lawyer, I might have been a diplomat. I studied for a semester in Eastern Europe while in college at Millsaps. It was an eventful period soon after the fall of Communism, and my time abroad significantly shaped the way I see the world. But my interest was limited to Europe, and junior Foreign Service officers rarely get to pick their posting.

Hometown: Houston, Miss.
Degree(s): BA from Millsaps College; law degree from the University of Mississippi
First Job: Worked in a movie theater in high school. Valuable experience. I always throw away my own popcorn and drink.
Favorite Restaurant: I have several friends who own restaurants in the Jackson metro area, and I like them all.
Last Book Read: “Sultana” by Alan Huffman
Person(s) who inspired you the most: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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