Payment to Southern Miss doesn’t pass ‘the smell test’

Mississippi Today recently wrote an eye-opening account of University of Southern Mississippi officials using $5 million in federal welfare funds – paid to them by the Mississippi Community Education Center – to build a state-of-the-art volleyball facility at the Hattiesburg campus.

MCEC was founded by a Southern Miss alumna, Nancy New, who also sat on the board of the university’s athletic foundation. The multi-million dollar payment was for a five-year lease on all of the university’s athletic facilities, and MCEC was supposed to use the facilities to provide programming for the local underserved population.

It’s unclear the extent of that programming, and university officials have only offered up one event as proof of the fulfillment of the lease. When I questioned them last week for our story, which added a Feb. 28 statement from the university to Mississippi Today’s fine account, they had no further comment but said they’d be looking to respond in the future.

I hope they do because, as one of our readers put in an email to me, this entire transaction “doesn’t pass the smell test.” It’s even more alarming when you consider that New is caught up in a state embezzlement investigation and is accused of stealing welfare money set aside to help our most needy neighbors.

As the Mississippi Today report pointed out, those neighbors don’t play volleyball and won’t benefit from the university’s beautiful new volleyball facility, which is officially known as the Wellness Center. I think it’s known as that, but I can’t be sure. University officials did not confirm its official name or when it will open when I asked for comment.

I do know it cost $7 million, and MCEC paid – upfront – $5 million. According to a statement from the university’s chief communication officer James Coll, the other $2 million was raised from private donors.

In the Feb. 28 statement I mentioned above, university officials admitted they were “disappointed that the concept (of services provided by MCEC) has not materialized to the extent presented to the University – through no fault of USM.” However, in the same statement, the university was quick to point out they had no legal obligation to return the $5 million if the deal fizzled out.

And it’s fizzling quickly, it seems. MCEC is suspending services around the state as its founder is in the midst of a legal battle and as grant awards to the nonprofit are withheld. According to an emailed statement from Coll to Mississippi Today, “it is now apparent that MCEC is unlikely to continue as an active partner in the agreement.”

From my viewpoint, it doesn’t appear that MCEC ever followed up on its promises, and I can’t tell if university officials ever pressed them on it – or if they just quickly deposited a check and started construction.

Under New’s leadership, MCEC received more than $65 million in federal funds from the Mississippi Department of Human Services over the course of a few years, and that money was supposed to help the state’s poor. The state has admitted that it did not follow procedures, and the money was seemingly mismanaged.

They’ve instituted new policies to ensure “these actions never happen again … and the money goes to people who need it,” according to a DHS spokesperson. In the meantime, the poor continue to suffer, including people who are our neighbors here in the Hub City.

University officials have to be aware of the bad optics of this situation, and the ethical – and logical – thing to do is void the agreement with MCEC. Additionally, they should return the $5 million to state coffers, and DHS officials should ensure it is used to provide direct assistance to those who truly need it.

I’m not at all against the USM women’s volleyball team having a great facility to use for their practices and matches, and I think the Wellness Center is likely needed on campus. However, in light of these recent developments, the $5 million should be found elsewhere.

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