Mississippi News – A former director of the Mississippi Department of Education was charged with conspiring to bypass the state’s contract procurement process, and to award contracts to individuals for kickbacks. Cerissa Neal (ex-director of the Office of Educator Licensure) is charged with conspiring to divide contract requests into smaller contracts to avoid the competitive bidding process. The contract would be awarded to the businesses of her co-defendants at an exorbitant price. Neal faces one count each of conspiracy, seven counts wire fraud, one count money laundering and three counts bribery. Neal is charged with fraud along with three Tennessee-based business owners for “bid rigging”, “false quotes” and altering purchase orders in order to make more money for their businesses and themselves. Lisa Ross, Neal’s attorney, says that if her client has been targeted, then the Mississippi Department of Education must also be targeted. Ross stated that if the case goes to trial, then the Mississippi Department of Education will be on trial. “Because they were their policies, the way this happened was pursuant to their regulations and rules,” said Ross. Carey Wright, the State Superintendent of Education, stated that the department of education was happy to see action being taken. The Mississippi Department of Education (MDE), is happy to see legal action taken against those who are allegedly to have defrauded both the MDE, and the State of Mississippi. Wright stated that we reported the suspected activity to the Office of the State Auditor in October 2017. We discovered evidence that a former employee might have violated state procurement laws. We conducted an immediate internal audit of all transactions in which the ex-employee was involved. The audit results were also provided to the OSA. We are eager and willing to continue to support the investigation through its conclusion.” U.S. attorney Mike Hurst brought the charges against Neal. He said that pursuing public corruption was a top priority for his office, as well as a personal mission. “Those who defraud public trust will be brought before a court to face their mistakes.” He stated that public corruption “erodes faith and devastates the very essence of our government system.” “…We’ll continue to fight corruption wherever it leads.” In recent years, other contracts awarded by Mississippi Department of Education have come under scrutiny. In 2016, attention was also drawn to the department’s award of contracts worth more than $600,000. These contracts were given to former coworkers of Carey Wright, State Superintendent of Education. In fiscal 2015, the department paid $214,469 to Joseph Kyles. Kyles is a Memphis community activist who was named as a codefendant in Neal’s. This raised eyebrows many years ago including those of Stacey Pickering, then-State Auditor. The state’s legislative watchdog agency, the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee, reported that the payments had been flagged. “I appreciate the federal partner’s investigative work in this matter,” Shad White, State Auditor, said. She has repeatedly criticised the department for its spending in recent months. “In 2017, the auditor’s office provided information regarding these defendants to federal agencies, so I’m thankful for the work of those investigators as well as former Auditor Pickering.” According to the indictment, Neal is accused with obtaining “false, inflated quotes, by herself, and from other conspirators, to make the intended conspiracyator’s business the lowest bid.” Neal would then be paid by the winning bidder, which was one of her three co-defendants, Kyles, David B. Hunt, Lambert Martin and all three of them owned businesses in Tennessee. These crimes occurred between 2013 and 2016, over a period of three years. According to court documents, the Kyles Company was awarded $650,000 more in state funds than any other company. These contracts were allegedly fraudulent and involved the transfer of teacher personnel records from microfiche to digital storage media, as well as purchase orders for equipment for classroom education. Federal funds were to pay for the equipment. Neal, who pleaded guilty to all charges, referred Ross her attorney with questions. We were shocked at the indictment. Ross stated that although it’s too soon to predict where we’re going we are looking at all options and will ultimately do the best for my client. We’re going to work hard to ensure she’s not overlooked. This is our goal. Ross said that Ross told people that they should not be singled out. He claimed he had all his receipts and doesn’t know why he was charged. Michael Dawkins, his attorney, stated that the allegations paint a picture that does not support the facts and that his client did nothing to violate the law. Dawkins stated that he is certain that once the facts of the case are known, he will be freed from all charges and his good name restored. According to the indictment Neal was charged with receiving more than $42,000 in indirect or direct payments from her codefendants. The trial is scheduled for Sept. 28 before U.S. district Court Judge Tom S. Lee.