This photo of U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran and other public relations materials by Mississippi State University staff may have violated the university’s political activities policy. Photo by MSU’s Office of Public Affairs
Mississippi State University officials may have violated the institution’s policy on political activities related to promotional materials for the university president’s former boss, U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, a candidate for re-election amid a heated primary election.
Multiple parts of the university policy on political activities appear to have been violated when MSU used taxpayer resources to publish and distribute photos and a news release about Cochran, an incumbent wanting a seventh term.
Cochran’s campus visit Feb. 19 involved sharing with about 30 students his experience crafting the $956 billion farm bill signed into law by President Barack Obama earlier that month. Of course, public universities have academic freedom to expose students to elected officials and politicians. However, MSU’s political activities policy prohibits use of employees, equipment and services to assist political candidates.
“State or federal funds or other resources may not be utilized in any way, directly or indirectly, to advance or attempt to advance the cause of any candidate or political party,” page one of MSU’s policy states.
Cochran’s MSU visit happened between campaign stops that included events in Columbus, West Point, Tupelo, Oxford and Greenville.
The senator’s campaign staff posted photos of the other campaign stops but not the MSU visit. Instead, university staff in the Office of Public Affairs took professional photographs of the candidate interacting with students and wrote a glowing news release about his expertise on farm policy. Staff materials published on MSU’s website and then used a taxpayer-funded database of statewide news media contacts for distribution.
MSU President Mark Keenum served 18 years as chief of staff for Cochran, 76, first elected to the Senate in 1978 and now finishing a sixth six-year term. After a stint as Undersecretary of Agriculture, the Board of Trustees at Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning, the governing board for Mississippi’s public universities, appointed him to as president of the land grant university with heavy agriculture ties.
The university president’s ties to Cochran represent just a slice of MSU’s direct connections to the longtime senator. Cochran’s savvy negotiations in delivering congressional earmarks led to $2.5 billion in federal money flowing into the state during fiscal years 2008-2010, each year Cochran earmarked ranked first among 100 Senators in earmarks sponsored, according to the data from the Center for Responsive Politics. MSU received significant chunks of that federal funding.
MSU’s $43 million in 2007 ranked the university first among public universities in the nation receiving congressional earmarks, according to an analysis by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Ole Miss ranked second that year with $37 million in projects.
Altogether, MSU activity related to promoting and supporting Cochran may have violated four parts of the university’s nine-page political activities policy. It prohibits preferential treatment of political candidates, instead calling for “equality” of treatment of all candidates. The policy requires the university to invite all candidates who have qualified for the office to receive the same level of treatment as any candidate who has appeared at the university.
The university’s political activities policy makes no exemption for incumbents seeking re-election.
When Cochran appeared at MSU, his Republican primary opponent Chris McDaniel, 41, and Democratic candidate Bill Marcy, 67, had also filed qualifying papers for the U.S. Senate race with
state political party offices. Federal Election Commission records show McDaniel’s statement of candidacy documents on file since Oct. 22. Other candidates qualified last week to try and unseat Cochran.
Among other Mississippi public university policies on political activities reviewed, MSU’s document provides the most lengthy and thorough guidelines and explanations for activities prohibited. Multiple of the state’s eight publicly funded universities do not have policies that address prohibited political activity for the institution. IHL does not have a policy related to defining acceptable political activities at state-funded universities.
Most university employees also qualify as state government employees and must follow state personnel policies. Mississippi State Personnel Board’s policies and procedures manual also prohibits “agencies” from directing state employees to provide services for or against political candidates.
National political pundits have identified Mississippi GOP U.S. Senate primary as among the most competitive in the nation. National political groups advocating for less federal government spending have targeted Cochran this campaign season, pumping more than $1 million to attack the senator or promote his opponent. Cochran has worked to appropriate billions of federal tax dollars to many programs throughout the state through congressional earmarks, often called porkbarrel spending.
Congress ended the practice of earmarking money for projects back home in 2011 after an outcry of abuse.
McDaniel and Marcy both have said they would support less federal spending in all states.
McDaniel did visit the university on Nov. 16 to speak to a student organization but review of the university’s news release archives showed nothing promoting the state Senator’s campus visit. Marcy last visited MSU as part of a candidate forum in 2008 when all Congressional candidates received invitations to interact with the university community.
Both McDaniel and Marcy’s campaigns confirmed the university has not informed them of any plans for photos and a news release for publication on MSU’s website and distribution to news organizations that received the Cochran material.
Sid Salter, director of MSU’s Office of Public Affairs, said the university did nothing inappropriate related to supporting a candidate in the Senate race. He said the university did not publicize Cochran’s visit until after the senator left campus and did not mention incumbent’s heated GOP primary race in the news release published and distributed.
“I don’t think we could have made that experience any less political,” Salter said during a lengthy interview last week. “The release that the university put out made no mention of the campaign or any aspect of that.”
MSU routinely has elected officials visit the university’s campus and produces related promotional material. It’s not immediately known how many have visited amid political campaigns.
Brett Kittredge, communications director for state auditor Stacey Pickering, said “gray areas” exist related political activities on state universities and wouldn’t comment on possible violations of state law. He said the auditor’s office must first receive an official complaint before any inquiry could make any official determination.
The Sun Herald, a south Mississippi newspaper, published a column last week by Pickering related to a dustup from a Politico story about McDaniel’s campaign that included criticism of government waste during disaster relief efforts. Pickering defended Cochran’s leadership in providing federal funding for relief and rebuilding in the state after Hurricane Katrina.
Experts on ethical actions of public, private and nonprofit leaders outside of Mississippi believe university officials made significant judgment lapses. James Abruzzo, co-director of Rutgers University’s Institute for Ethical Leadership, said all leaders face ethical dilemmas and must ensure they do not create the appearance of conflict of interest or favoritism. He said sometimes the appearance of these dubious activities is sometimes considered the same as a conflict of interest or favoritism, even if it breaks no laws or regulations.
Abruzzo reviewed MSU’s political activities policy and the news release resulting from Cochran’s visit and said the policy seems very explicit, going to great lengths to describe circumstances not permitted.
“While one could argue that the circumstances in question, however they are interpreted, do not break any policies, they certainly present the appearance of favoritism toward one candidate,” Abruzzo said. “The fact that the university may benefit from the candidate’s influencing government appropriations, simply exacerbates the situation.”
Disclosure: I worked as a research writer at Mississippi State University’s Office of University Relations (now Office of Public Affairs) as I completed my master’s degree in public policy and administration and until I resumed my journalism career full-time in May 2012. I never officially worked with Salter at the university and had accepted a position at a Pennsylvania newspaper before he was appointed director of the office. However, I did write a news release in December 2010 about Salter speaking at a fall commencement.
MSU’s political activities policy
MSU’s Feb. 19 news release
Mississippi Public Personnel Board’s policies and procedures manual
Mississippi’s Institutions of Higher Learning policies related to political activity