3 On Your Side Investigates: State of Affairs

Published: Jun. 9, 2022 at 6:42 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) -- Internal documents sent to the Mississippi Veterans Affairs Board spell out allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior between the head of the agency, Executive Director Stacey Pickering, and his subordinate, chief of staff Melissa Wade, five months before the two would abruptly resign.

A memo from December 15, 2021 details one such encounter, which started with a knock on Pickering’s door from a cleaning lady identified only as “Elaine.”

No one answered when she knocked, so she retrieved a spare key and unlocked the door to clean the office suite.

The memo states she walked into Pickering’s office and saw him and Wade “engaging in sexual conduct.”

The document said Elaine was then told a few weeks later that she should not barge into offices unannounced, and she was transferred out of the building entirely.

“That, to me, is retaliatory. Without knowing more, I still say it’s retaliatory and it was not a good move,” said Tracy Pearson, legal analyst for Law & Crime Network.

A second document penned two weeks earlier indicates that behavior had been going on for some time.

It claimed rumors had been circulating within MSVA and other state agencies about such a relationship between the two, unprofessional and sexual.

It also alleged that Wade told employees Pickering was her therapist.

The investigator here – whose name was redacted from the document – told Pickering he needed to protect himself from these allegations, not to hold “closed-door meetings alone with Ms. Wade in his office…, especially meetings that ran for hours at a time, which has become common.”

Why wasn’t any action taken to investigate this conduct?

One memo cited a “lack of direct evidence.”

“No investigation, you know, is basically being conducted. And that blew my mind,” Pearson said.

Pearson said the standard typically used when determining whether to investigate is to take all information coming in – the cleaning lady’s account, for example – as truthful.

Then, one would see if the behavior in question broke any rules.

In this case, it did: the prohibited relationships policy in the handbook for state employees.

Pearson said at that point, the employer would open an investigation, but we have no evidence that happened.

Documents provided to 3 On Your Side indicate these memos were sent to the current chairman of the Mississippi Veterans Affairs Board, Maxx Fenn, but nothing publicly was ever done about them.

“I can’t comment,” Fenn said repeatedly when reached by phone as he was asked questions about the resignation.

When 3 On Your Side asked MSVA whether an investigation had been conducted, spokesperson Ray Coleman told us the agency doesn’t comment on personnel matters.

“That is a huge problem because we’re dealing with sex-based allegations, gender-based allegations. And the EEOC as a just a federal agency expects that employers will, in fact, investigate these issues,” Pearson said. “There were oodles of evidence to investigate. So why didn’t they?”

Our investigation found even more evidence that suggested the two spent time together, even before Wade was promoted to Pickering’s chief of staff.

Travel records from the state show two different times where Pickering’s travel coincided with hers.

On April 29, 2020, state records show Pickering and Wade – then a staff officer – each spent $94 on lodging, checking out the next day.

Pickering’s public calendar also shows the same thing Wade’s calendar does: a HUM-V program meeting in Pascagoula.

Then on July 15, 2021, Pickering’s calendar indicates he drove with his wife to Atlanta.

State records show he went out of state on July 18 and came back four days later, spending $326 on a hotel there.

Around the same time, Pickering was in that city on state business, Wade was also there for a vendor conference.

At that point, she had already been promoted to deputy administrator of the MSVA, making $35,000 more.

“Was it consensual? Was it somebody– who pursued whom? And that’s something that’s really important to know. It sounds to me as if it’s probably the sort of stereotypical, you know, where it maybe evolved over time,” Pearson said.

Wade’s salary evolved over time, too.

Over the course of fewer than two years with the agency, her pay nearly doubled, from $51,254 in April 2020 to $98,330 by January 2022.

That raise came through two weeks after allegations of a sexual relationship first surfaced.

“We try to make sure that we use every leverage we can, to protect the taxpayers’ interest,” Pickering told reporters in Sept. 2017, during his time as state auditor.

After leaving that post before the end of his elected term, Pickering came to the MSVA board in July 2018.

Now, as executive director, he began to accrue personal leave: eventually, up to 18 hours a month for each month worked.

The amount of leave Pickering officially used, obtained through a public records request, shows he only took 80 hours of personal leave – 10 days vacation time – in nearly four years.

That time off doesn’t match a cursory review of Pickering’s public calendar with a former employee who had knowledge of his activities.

3 On Your Side counted 181 days related to military service, including Title 10 orders confirmed through the federal government.

That service included a trip abroad to Germany, and makeup drill days during the week.

Though state law allows Pickering, as a member of the Air National Guard, 15 days of military leave per year, records show he only took 12 days over nearly four years.

We also tracked 46 days of family excursions, days off, and other personal obligations.

In all, we found 205 days for which Pickering should have utilized leave but did not, adding up to more than $118,260 he was paid when it appears he was doing other things.

We told all of this to Pickering’s successor, State Auditor Shad White.

“Because that involves a specific set of circumstances, I just, I can’t comment on an ongoing investigation or even a potential ongoing investigation. So I just have to leave it at that,” White said.

But this kind of situation is something that’s well within the auditor’s purview to look into.

Not long ago, White’s investigators went after John Gravat, a former parks and rec director in northeast Mississippi for misrepresenting the time he worked.

For White, whether these cases are considered fraud depends on one thing: intent.

“We’re talking about deceit. We’re talking about disguising something from other people, we’re talking about lying. Those are the kinds of words that we associate with the notion of fraud. So we have to prove that somebody knew X was true, but they said y to someone else, in order to get some money. That’s kind of what we’re looking for when we’re trying to prove a time theft case,” White said.

It’s not clear whether MSVA’s board of directors knew about this, but the board’s chairman didn’t want to comment on that, either.

Pickering answered our call, but quickly told us he was walking into a meeting.

After he told us to call him back, he hung up.

Subsequent calls have gone unanswered, leaving only his voicemail.

Melissa Wade didn’t return our calls for comment, either.

MSVA has yet to confirm any of our findings as well.

“Just saying okay, matter closed, because two people left the organization. That isn’t good enough. Even if someone resigns, there should be an investigation, and here’s why. You want to understand what led to the circumstances that allowed that to happen,” Pearson said.

One more thing: Pickering didn’t just get money for times his calendar suggests he didn’t work.

Because he only took 10 days of leave – and unused vacation time rolls over without any cap for state employees – that leaves an estimated 736 hours.

A 3 On Your Side analysis finds the value of that comes to $53,072, $17,000 of which Pickering would get to cash out.

It seems he’s burning a lot of that right now until his effective exit date of July 11, leaving just 16 hours, or $1,100, to go into his state retirement account.

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