Mississippi lawmakers direct money for ads in some schools

MGN Online

An advertising company that uses a well-connected lobbying firm has been paid more than $2.3 million since 2012 to hang posters in some Mississippi schools.

Posted: Jul 24, 2019 4:45 PM

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — An advertising company that uses a well-connected lobbying firm has been paid more than $2.3 million since 2012 to hang posters in some Mississippi schools.

The Clarion Ledger reported that Mississippi lawmakers gave specific directions to state agencies to use the services of SkoolAds, based in Memphis, Tennessee.

For the 2018-2019 school year, Mississippi paid about $3,000 to create anti-tobacco posters, then paid SkoolAds $255,000 to hang those posters in fewer than one-tenth of the state's public schools.

Since 2011, SkoolAds has paid $362,302 to a firm led by Beth Clay, long one of the highest-paid Mississippi lobbyists.

SkoolAds and its lobbyists say that driving school to school and personally placing posters in black frames above drinking fountains and on cafeteria walls ensures students are seeing posters. They say SkoolAds has working relationships with schools across the state, making it the only company currently capable of handling the job. They also say competitive bidding would reaffirm that.

"We've been doing an awesome job for years and providing indisputable results," SkoolAds owner Lori Swaney said in a text message to the newspaper.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation and the Mississippi State Department of Health have questioned the effectiveness of SkoolAds.

A transportation spokesman said the agency never wanted to spend money on SkoolAds, but was directed to do so by the Legislature.

MDOT spent $300,000 over three years for SkoolAds to hang posters about driver safety, including the dangers of texting while driving.

"We didn't think it had any real value whatsoever," said MDOT spokesman Chris Turner. "We want to fix roads. This took our money. This was really unnecessary."

SkoolAds conducts its own surveys, which contend 100 percent of students see the anti-tobacco posters. However, an internal email shows the former director of the state's Office of Tobacco Control doubted the posters' effectiveness as early as 2015.

When asked if the Health Department ever requested the SkoolAds program, agency spokeswoman Liz Sharlot said no.

The SkoolAds anti-tobacco advertising was funded after SkoolAds hired Clay and found an influential supporter in Republican Sen. Terry Burton of Newton.

Swaney's initial sales pitch to the Department of Health was unsuccessful. She reached out to the agency as early as December 2011, when she emailed a Health Department official thanking him for meeting with her.

In 2012, Swaney sent a letter outlining several proposals for hanging anti-tobacco posters in schools, but the department chose none of them.

During the 2013 session, lawmakers wrote SkoolAds into the Health Department appropriation bill for $300,000, ordering the program to be funded. The money came from the state's 1997 lawsuit settlement with tobacco companies.

Clay emailed the Health Department director in September 2013, inquiring about a delay with the SkoolAds money and reminding her that Burton and Republican Rep. John Moore of Brandon wanted SkoolAds funded. Moore was the House Education chairman, and the earmark initially required a transfer of money from the Department of Education.

Hope Ladner, who works at Clay's lobbying firm, said Burton was the driving force behind the SkoolAds earmark.

"Ironically, Sen. Burton was a smoker, and he was one of our biggest advocates about this because he truly believed that targeting youth was the best way to spend tobacco cessation, tobacco prevention money," Ladner said.

Burton is recovering from a stroke and declined to comment to the Clarion Ledger. He is not seeking re-election. Moore resigned from the House in late 2017 after facing sexual harassment complaints from several women.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 312608

Reported Deaths: 7221
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto21429257
Hinds20256414
Harrison17776308
Rankin13539278
Jackson13395246
Madison10051217
Lee9956173
Jones8364163
Forrest7633152
Lauderdale7215240
Lowndes6359144
Lamar620286
Lafayette6162118
Washington5320133
Bolivar4796132
Oktibbeha460398
Panola4545104
Pearl River4495145
Marshall4387103
Warren4368120
Pontotoc419372
Monroe4089133
Union408776
Neshoba4028176
Lincoln3939110
Hancock376686
Leflore3484125
Sunflower335290
Tate331684
Pike3290105
Scott314873
Alcorn310768
Yazoo310269
Itawamba299377
Copiah295865
Coahoma293979
Simpson293788
Tippah287268
Prentiss278560
Marion268680
Leake264973
Wayne262241
Grenada259985
Adams259882
Covington256281
Newton246961
George246748
Winston226981
Tishomingo225067
Jasper220748
Attala214273
Chickasaw207057
Holmes188672
Clay184654
Stone181433
Clarke178179
Tallahatchie177840
Calhoun169532
Yalobusha162936
Smith162034
Walthall133745
Greene130233
Lawrence128223
Noxubee126834
Montgomery126742
Perry126038
Amite123442
Carroll121628
Webster114532
Jefferson Davis106932
Tunica104626
Claiborne102130
Benton99025
Humphreys96133
Kemper95628
Franklin83323
Quitman79616
Choctaw75818
Wilkinson66830
Jefferson65428
Sharkey50217
Issaquena1686
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 528784

Reported Deaths: 10913
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson762251516
Mobile40864804
Madison34569501
Tuscaloosa25646451
Montgomery24264585
Shelby23355246
Baldwin20993306
Lee15800168
Calhoun14457312
Morgan14250279
Etowah13796352
Marshall12166222
Houston10506280
Elmore10017205
Limestone9935150
Cullman9617193
St. Clair9584237
Lauderdale9397238
DeKalb8813185
Talladega8183175
Walker7205279
Autauga6910107
Jackson6793110
Blount6621135
Colbert6282134
Coffee5491115
Dale4810111
Russell437938
Chilton4244111
Franklin423882
Covington4105117
Tallapoosa4004150
Escambia392675
Chambers3545123
Dallas3536150
Clarke350360
Marion3092100
Pike309177
Lawrence299698
Winston273572
Bibb259763
Marengo248564
Geneva247075
Pickens233559
Barbour230256
Hale221776
Butler215469
Fayette211962
Henry188544
Cherokee183845
Randolph179241
Monroe176240
Washington166839
Macon158649
Clay153356
Crenshaw151657
Cleburne148341
Lamar141234
Lowndes138453
Wilcox126528
Bullock122941
Conecuh110028
Perry107526
Coosa106828
Sumter104132
Greene92234
Choctaw60324
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