State Official Admits Taking Illegal Campaign Contributions
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) _ A state Public Service Commission member pleaded guilty Thursday to accepting illegal campaign contributions and resigned from the regulatory agency.
Sidney Barnett, sentenced to two years probation, was arrested three weeks after taking office Jan. 3 and charged with 15 counts of accepting campaign contributions from companies the commission regulates.
Barnett, 50, an attorney, maintained his innocence at the time. But within days of his arrest, six utilities and companies came forward admitting to the contributions, state Attorney General Mike Moore said.
Barnett faced a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and $75,000 in fines. He entered his guilty plea before Judge James Thomas in Harrison County Circuit Court.
Campaign worker Joe Leonard, who was charged with aiding in collection of illegal contributions, also pleaded guilty Thursday. He was sentenced to one year of probation.
Moore said Barnett will assist his office in an ongoing investigation into widespread illegal campaign contributions and other crimes.
Moore has enlisted the help of the U.S. Attorney’s office and the FBI, indicating that federal law, and not just state law, may have been violated.
″(Barnett) will furnish testimony into the investigation into other like activity, into other folks that may be making illegal contributions and even worse than that,″ Moore said. ″We feel we have the makings of a very significant investigation.″
Moore never used the word bribery, but said federal and state authorities would look into ″public officials taking money to influence their actions.″
After former Commissioners D.W. Snyder and Lynn Havens were convicted in 1989 of bribery-related charges, the 1990 Legislature made it illegal for a commissioner or candidate to accept anything of value from any company the PSC regulates.