Hodge Tate

TWO TATERS IN A TOT — Sheriff Alex Hodge with Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves campaigning at Day in the Park in Laurel in 2015. (File photo by Mark Thornton)

 

Most residents are aware that Jones County Sheriff Alex Hodge and the Leader-Call have been at loggerheads for the last year. The reason for that, like the fuse that starts most feuds, is downright silly. More on that in a minute …

The past isn’t nearly as important as where we’re going as a county with the choices voters have to make a week from today and on Nov. 5. Here’s the bottom line: If Hodge has his way, he’ll have three new supervisors of his choosing on the board to rubber-stamp his huge proposed budget increase, and that will affect everyone who lives here. That’s not paranoia. That’s not personal. That’s a fact.

The non-elected chief financial officer for the Board of Supervisors has said there are only two ways to give the sheriff the $8.6 million budget he’s requesting: 1.) Cut services to residents — the road fund, recreation, the library, etc., or 2.) Raise taxes. It’s that simple. And it’s that scary for those of us who already saw a sizable increase on our property tax bills this year.

At least two new supervisors will be in office come January. If those two are Hodge’s boys and he gets one more, that’s it. Just hand the keys to the county over to him. The only thing that will inflate more than your tax bill is the size of Hodge’s ego. Both would be quite a burden to bear. So, please read the candidates’ answers to the important question about whether they would grant the sheriff his budget increase. If they leave themselves any wiggle room, be wary.

Third term was the alarm

Hodge was a great sheriff for his first two terms, and he could count on glowing coverage from this paper, even though plenty of people were telling us that he wasn’t who he appeared to be. They never had any hard evidence, though, and we never saw any for ourselves over his first 10 years of service. Sure, he had what supporters would call an “air of confidence” and what detractors would call “arrogance.” We gave him a pass on that. Anyone who can make it through Trooper training has earned a little swagger.

But that confident sheriff turned into a megalomaniac at some point in his third term. As his side business B Clean grew to three more burgeoning businesses — Blendex, B Clean Plumbing and B Clean Transportation — he seemed to want to run everything in the county, too. He wanted to take over dispatch, so he pushed out Marda Tullos, a woman who had served the county for most of her life. Then he wanted to take over school security, at a proposed cost of another $1 million or so. He tried to tell supervisors where they were wrong with their spending priorities, so he wanted to do their jobs, too. Then he strong-armed justice court officials into not providing public documents for us after his department cut us off from the flow of information, citing bogus (and illegal) “ongoing investigation” excuses.

And as if all of that wasn’t enough, he was trying to play the role of local media on top of all the other stuff. If he had been getting unfair coverage, that would have been understandable, but we all handled him as if we were his PR people. That didn’t satisfy his urge to be the star, though. 

That desire to be in the bright lights was enlightening. He called it “Live S.O.” We called it “Alex-Jazeera.” He must love the way Iraq, North Korea and China report “news.” You see, dictators handle their own media coverage. It’s called “propaganda.” Smart leaders understand that there’s more credibility if an independent second party says you’re great instead of you telling the audience that you’re great. Control freaks don’t care, though. They want to be in charge because they’re better and smarter than everyone else. Hodge certainly falls into that category.

In 2017, at least 17 deputies left the department. Many of them are flourishing in other law enforcement agencies in the area now. Several of them blame Hodge directly for their departure. Hodge blames the budget and the other people … in all 17 cases. That response is typical of Hodge. Things that go wrong are never his fault. Never. That’s been a theme when asked about personnel issues or any of the other problems we’ve exposed in the last few months.

Selective enforcement

When we reported the fact that accused felons were getting their cases dismissed in droves (21 this year alone) because their indictments weren’t being served in a timely manner, Hodge said it was a legal issue and that he isn’t a lawyer. But last week, when he informed county school officials that he would be charging $40 an hour for his deputies to provide school security (up from $25 an hour), he dispensed legal advice. He cited an Attorney General’s opinion and warned that using certified officers who hadn’t been deputized could be a “liability to the county” if there’s a serious incident. No, he’s not above using scare tactics to get his way. We believe the rate increase is just a tactic for him to achieve his goal of taking over school security. 

He doesn’t like not getting his way. And that’s the root of his problem with the paper. After his raid on Lyon Ranch Road, where a kind-hearted woman and her Purple Heart hero husband were made props in Hodge’s publicity stunt — being subjected to strip-searching then paraded before TV cameras for a misdemeanor charge — he threw a Facebook tantrum when we had the nerve to steer away from his narrative of the case. 

After his report said some of the 89 pets that were seized were starving, we simply reported that a package delivery truck with a large pet food delivery was turned away during the raid. We also showed a recent receipt for thousands of dollars of pet food that had been purchased and we reported that the condition of the animals when they arrived at Col. David and Mary Ellen Sennes’ property was not known. All of those are irrefutable facts.

Hodge’s hissy-fit pointed out that our managing editor Sean Murphy was connected to the Sennes (something we had already disclosed in explaining why Murphy wouldn’t be handling the story) and went on to post something suggesting that the people deserved “a real home town newspaper,” which, by his definition, must mean one that doesn’t disagree with him.

Since then, he has cut off the Leader-Call from receiving information from his $37,000-per-year PR person. By the way, he’s the only county official with a PR person, and he’s had the audacity to stand right there beside her while battling the Board of Supervisors, telling them he doesn’t have enough money in his budget to provide adequate protection to residents. At each staged budget battle, he brought members of his department and entourage en masse to try to intimidate the board and to create a false appearance of overwhelming support. 

When some of them shouted down board members in the middle of meetings, Hodge did nothing to stop them, even though the sheriff’s purpose for being there is to maintain order. That proved what we already knew — he is selective with his enforcement of the law. There are perks to being on his side — whether it’s as sheriff or a connected customer of one of his businesses.

Hodge can be petty with his selective enforcement, though. We know that he has called owners of private businesses to complain that their workers were posting derogatory comments about him on Facebook during work hours … all while employees from his department were posting desperately defensive things about him during their workday, which is on the taxpayers’ time. And never mind that another church security workshop, a child ID table at the mall and a school supplies giveaway were all hastily arranged here just a few days before the primary election. All are thinly veiled campaign events, all on the taxpayers’ time and dime.

Failure to serve

Hodge’s sycophants say that we’re biased. But when Judge Dal Williamson ruled that the seizure of the Sennes’ five household pets was “unconstitutional” and when he ruled 21 times that the sheriff violated defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial for failure to serve their indictments in a timely manner, they began saying that he must be against their sheriff, too. All the judge was doing was following the law, which requires defendants to be served within eight months of their indictment. The 21 whose cases were dismissed were served after time periods ranging from two to 12 years, and most of them had lived and/or worked at the same places for years, so they wouldn’t have been hard to find. If he had sentenced them, the Court of Appeals or Supreme Court would have reversed the decision and assessed the county with the bills for the appeals. Williamson’s rulings just delayed the inevitable, saving the county money.

Hodge’s followers are the ones who are biased, though. They ignore facts and toast their guy while drinking the Kool-Aid.

The man who runs the department, Maj. Jamie Tedford, posted a laughing emoji on a comment suggesting that someone should plant drugs on us. Some of his investigators spend so much time on Facebook defending Hodge and making not-so-veiled threats on his behalf during working hours and after hours, one can’t help but wonder how many indictments could have been served if they’d put the same effort into that.

There’s a wise old saying about politics: “Follow the money.” That’s difficult to do with a politician whose donors know how to keep the cash off the books while handing it out via black preachers to give to traditional non-voters and Democrats to vote for their candidate. Don’t think for a second those kinds of shenanigans are reserved for state and federal races.

We know for sure where you won’t trace any money to — The Laurel Leader-Call. Our stance in this campaign has cost us tens of thousands of dollars in advertising revenue, and that’s a big chunk for a small business like ours.

We are sacrificing our economic interests in order to look out for yours. That’s what we did in our reporting of the Burroughs-Sinclair manslaughter case and it’s what we’re doing now. It’s not smart business. But it’s the right thing to do. It’s our job. 

Now we hope you go to the polls and do your job. Take the information that we’ve provided you, apply your own common sense and do the right thing. Either you’re for the usual Establishment politics or you’re tired of it. 

We think people have seen the light in the last year. If not, that will send a sad message. Come next January, if Alex Hodge is sworn in for a fourth term and Tate Reeves is sworn in as governor, we’ll know that the donor class still controls Jones County and the rest of the state.

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