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.