Keeping his word is keeping Hosemann busy

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 8, 2009

Remember Gilbert Hosemann, the soft-spoken man that sweet lady on TV wanted us to elect as Mississippi’s secretary of state?

After much coaching, she learned his name wasn’t Gilbert or Wilbert or Engbert or Philbert. It was Delbert.

And he did win.

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But Delbert Hosemann might wish to revisit that peaceful park bench where the TV commercial was taped and spend some time pondering why exactly it was that he wanted to leave his tenured position in a Jackson law firm. His first 14 months on the job have been anything but calm.

In historic terms, a secretary of state has had, well, secretarial duties. The secretary of state and the staff make sure public land records are filed, corporate charters are proper, elections follow the script set forth in state law. Routine. Mundane. Not unimportant, but not headline-making.

Well, that was then.

Last week, Hosemann’s office had a case in Texas before a federal judge in Dallas, speaking for investors in the Stanford Group, which, until recently, was a respected repository of a lot of people’s life savings. Turns out the R. Allen Stanford’s enterprise, which had a widespread presence in Mississippi, was not exactly liquid.

Hosemann participated with others in coaxing the court-appointed receiver of remaining Stanford assets to release all accounts containing $100,000 or less. He won, meaning 3,768 of the 4,514 Mississippians with Stanford investments will have access to their money to pay their mortgages, utilities, prescriptions and living expenses.

In January, Hosemann felt obligated to pounce on owners of eight private cemeteries or funeral homes in Mississippi that have been selling “pre-need” wares to families. The eight have not been able to show they have, as required by state law, reserved portions of their customers’ payments in trust accounts.

The largest among the cases involves Green Acres Memorial Park just outside Vicksburg’s city limits. There, an unknown number of people have paid the Texas company that owns the 60-year-old cemetery for burial services, vaults, grave markers and other merchandise. After filtering through inexact records in many states, Hosemann filed for an injunction saying a trust account that should have at least $370,000 has, well, the equivalent of two pieces of bubblegum, a moth and some pocket lint.

Safe to say it’s been a challenge for Hosemann, who grew up in Vicksburg, to answer phone calls from friends of his family who want to know if they have forfeited several thousand dollars and are holding worthless receipts. For now, the answer appears to be yes.

Let’s see … What else?

Oh, yes. As custodian of public lands, Hosemann updated an index of all 16th Section properties statewide. From civics, citizens should remember that from the time most states were chartered, one section (640 acres) out of every township (36 sections) in a county survey was deeded exclusively to the state with all income to support public education.

The history of 16th Section management in Mississippi is, to say the least, checkered. Some school boards (which have actual leasing authority) have made millions. Some have made friends. Anyway, Hosemann put every lease on the Internet. Perhaps the idea was to shame some of the more poorly managed districts to shape up. Perhaps it was to interest the media in writing about the variations. Either way, it was a lot of work and in this day when schools require billions, a few million forfeited here and there hasn’t seemed to matter very much to the public mind.

Before the 2007 general vote in which Hosemann was elected, primary balloting in Wilkinson County, down in the southwest corner of Mississippi, was, according to myriad challenges, conducted with all the organization of an impromptu goat-roping.

While Attorney General Jim Hood has actually done a bit of prosecuting for voter fraud in other counties, the situation in Wilkinson was so bizarre — there was no semblance of accountability for who voted and how many times — the whole thing was declared a do-over, after a whole year of obfuscation, legal wrangling and bitter, accusatory rhetoric.

Being a loyal Republican, Hosemann also lit the torch for voter ID in appearances before lawmakers this year. It’s an issue that keeps failing to gain popular traction, even though 29 of the 82 counties in Mississippi list more people on poll books than they have as adult residents.

The missing link in voter ID is, of course, any indication that adding proof of identity to the list of requirements already being ignored in some jurisdictions would serve any useful purpose. Regardless, the topic appears to be dead for this session.

But on all fronts of this thing called “integrity,” Hosemann is trying.

And it’s good. Because he told that lady on the park bench he would.