Federal prosecutor James Tucker stood tall challenging Mississippi’s corruption

Published 9:13 am Wednesday, January 5, 2022

When retired federal prosecutor James B. Tucker died on Dec. 28 at the age of 82, the cause of justice and the rule of law in Mississippi lost a mighty warrior. Tucker was a trusted, impeccable source for me in the 1980s when I covered a copious number of public corruption trials in the U.S. District Court of Southern Mississippi.

Tucker was a man of impeccable personal and professional integrity and battled corruption with courage, vigor, and a sense of moral outrage. For Mississippi public officials who thought it appropriate to dip into the public till Tucker was a worthy and pine knot-tough adversary.

But as we came to trust each other, I gained a fascinating look into the complex undercover investigation that came to be called “the Pretense Scandal” in Mississippi – which unearthed pervasive kickbacks and bribery in county government in the state.

We rarely talked other than off-the-record conversation. He demanded confidentiality. “If you burn me, we’ll never talk again,” was something Tucker said early and often in our conversations. What I learned was their there existed in that day a sense of entitlement among local officials to solicit and accept bribes and kickbacks in the conduct of the public’s business.

But as we came to trust each other, I gained a fascinating look into the complex undercover investigation that came to be called “the Pretense Scandal” in Mississippi.

How pervasive was that system? Some 56 of the state’s 410 county supervisors representing 26 of the state’s 82 counties were convicted or pleaded guilty to either federal or state corruption charges. Another 12 vendors selling things like culverts or motor grader blades to county supervisors and paying kickbacks for the privilege were implicated in the probe – several convicted and some getting charges dismissed for rolling over on the elected officials.

Tucker and John Hailman, his counterpart in the U.S. District Court of Northern Mississippi, were both chiefs of the criminal divisions of their respective federal jurisdictions during the “Pretense” probe that lasted from 1984 through 1989. The pair wrote the book nationally for federal prosecutions of government corruption cases in the Department of Justice manual “Investigating and Prosecuting Public Corruption.”

University of Southern Mississippi Professor Emeritus James Crockett in 2003 wrote “Operation Pretense: The FBI’s Sting on County Corruption in Mississippi,” which focused on public corruption in the state’s county government system. The “Pretense” scandal propelled former State Auditor Ray Mabus to political prominence, positioning him to win a term as governor. He would later serve as U.S. ambassador and as Secretary of the Navy.

The “Pretense” scandal further changed the atmosphere for county officials regarding purchasing accountability and transparency in county record-keeping and brought about a far-flung debate over the merits of the country unit system versus the “beat” or district form of governance.

Tucker devoted 30 years to his distinguished service to the Justice Department, eventually serving as the Southern District U.S. Attorney in Mississippi.

He served 30 years as a Judge Advocate General officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve, retiring as a captain. For 25 years, Tucker taught trial practice at the Mississippi College School of Law.

Tucker’s final career stop was at the prestigious Butler Snow law firm in Ridgeland, where he practiced law for 20 years.

After his retirement from the Justice Department, he would call on occasion to either applaud or criticize a column. Still, mostly his calls were like the earlier days of our relationship – he truly enjoyed explaining the finer points of both the law and the tactics prosecutors used to go after those who broke the law.

James Tucker was one of the good guys. I think back to “Pretense” and the trials of so many public officials who abused the public trust. Tucker, Hailman, and that relatively small group of federal prosecutors in the Southern and Northern districts of this state succeeded where state prosecutors, for the most part, had not – by putting either the fear of God or the fear of time in the federal prison in those who stole the taxpayers’ money.

The net result was that the culture slowly changed in Mississippi. State and local officials began to demand accountability of public officials who crossed the line.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com.