Drug money in Pelahatchie

It’s common for State Auditor Stacey Pickering to announce that he wants officials in a Mississippi town or county to repay money they’ve been accused of misspending or even stealing.

It is more interesting, however, when Pickering says that officials in Pelahatchie, a town of about 1,300 people in eastern Rankin County, just next door to us, are accused of misspending $500,000 in drug seizure money.

Pickering’s press release about the demand for repayment doesn’t specify how long it took Pelahatchie to amass that much money from drug seizures. But if the Audit Department is correct, it only took town officials three years to spend it improperly.

Auditors are seeking $421,000 from Pelahatchie officials who were in office from January 2015 to June 2017. They want repayment of another $80,000 from the current mayor and board for July through December 2017.

According to the Audit Department, Pelahatchie used its gigantic drug seizure windfall in plenty of ways that are against the law. The state requires any money received through drug asset forfeitures to go into the budget of the law enforcement agency involved — in this case, the town’s police department.

Instead, the money in question allegedly went to places like a water and sewer account, a special fire department fund, to pay the salaries of non-police employees and even to prevent an overdraft in Pelahatchie’s regular checking account.

It will be interesting to see how much of the $500,000 Pickering’s office recovers for the Pelahatchie police. But even more interesting is this unanswered question: How did such a small town stumble into half a million dollars worth of drug forfeitures?

Granted, Pelahatchie is on Interstate 20 and U.S. Highway 80, which are popular drug transportation routes. But it’s such a small town that you have to wonder how it got so lucky in finding lawbreakers.

It may be that because of its location in busy Rankin County, Pelahatchie shared in a county-wide division of drug seizures. Whatever happened, it’s a shame the police department didn’t get as much money as it deserved and it should be a sign for other small towns that regardless of size or location, you’ve still got to follow the law too.