November 4, 2017 11:43:17 PM
A group advocating to keep OCH Regional Medical Center publicly owned is not taking recent advertising by its opposition lying down.
At least one member of the Friends of OCH has filed a complaint with Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood's office against Ridgeland-based Nothing but the Facts, according to Libba Andrews, a spokesperson for the Friends.
Nothing but the Facts, through its organizer Carol Stern, has spent thousands of dollars on advertising and campaign materials supporting the sale of the Oktibbeha County-owned hospital. But the group is neither registered as a political action group with the Oktibbeha County Circuit Clerk's office, nor has it reported its campaign donations or expenditures, as state law requires.
Voters will decide on Tuesday whether to allow Oktibbeha County supervisors to pursue selling OCH. Baptist Health Care Corporation in Memphis, Tennessee, and Tupelo-based North Mississippi Health Services have submitted proposals to purchase the hospital.
"It's cloak and dagger," Andrews said of the Nothing but the Facts advertising campaign. "Play by the rules, or don't play."
State law requires groups or candidates who raise or spend more than $200 for a political campaign to document that with the appropriate office -- in this case the circuit clerk's office since it's a countywide election. Intentionally failing to do so is a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum fine of $3,000 and up to six months in jail.
Stern purchased $5,112 in radio advertising from Cumulus Broadcasting Group in Columbus for five different ads that will run regularly on two of its FM stations -- 94.9 and 106.1 -- through election day, according to publicly available records the broadcasting company shared with The Dispatch. Those stations are each running two of the ads per hour, a Cumulus spokesperson said.
Three ads are running on 94.9, at least one of which is critical of OCH's financial situation and hospital CEO Richard Hilton. Two spots on 106.1, which Stern bought on behalf of the Education Association of East Oktibbeha County Schools, are targeted at African-Americans. Both ask voters to sell the hospital a group with a "proven record" of promoting minorities to leadership positions.
On Saturday, a spokesperson with Tupelo-based Mississippi Broadcasting Group said Stern had purchased ads to run on WSYE 93.3 FM through Tuesday. However, the spokesperson did not specify the frequency the ads would run or how much Stern paid.
Nothing but the Facts, which Stern has registered as a limited liability company with the Mississippi Secretary of State's Office, is also listed as the source of mailers campaigning for yes votes to the OCH sale. Stern also owns C Stern Strategic Marketing and is reportedly known as a political activist known for supporting "progressive causes" in the state.
Andrews would not identify which Friends member or members had filed the AG complaint.
Margaret Ann Morgan, public relations director with Hood's office, said the office could "neither confirm nor deny" a complaint had been filed.
Friends of OCH is registered as a political action group and reported more than $43,000 in campaign donations, along with more than $16,000 in expenditures, with the circuit clerk by Tuesday's pre-election deadline.
"We're trying to do the right thing the right way, and we are constantly battling people who are not playing above board," Andrews said. "It's exhausting. It's disappointing. It's maddening."
Tone of campaign rhetoric
More to the point, Andrews said, it's dishonest -- not just that Stern hasn't filed the appropriate reports, but that the messages in the ads range from misleading to untrue.
OCH leaders have refuted claims it operated the first 10 months of the fiscal year at a $5.1 million deficit, as the ads claim. Hilton also told The Dispatch last week that 18 of OCH's 130 physicians are minorities, while another 19 minority employees serve in supervisor or director positions.
"I don't mind a good debate or a good discussion with people of different viewpoints," she said. "But I expect the truth. This, though, has gotten so underhanded and ugly.
"We expect another bomb between now and election day," she added. "Of course, we don't know what it will be. At some point, it becomes laughable -- just the audacity and the lengths these people will go to."
County board of supervisors president Orlando Trainer, one of the most publicly ardent supporters of selling OCH, acknowledged the campaign's tone had taken an unfortunate turn. He said he sees where emotionally charged members of both the pro-sale and anti-sale camps could have released misleading information while pushing their agendas. He said also he believes Stern's ads will impact how people vote.
Ultimately, though, he believes the process of discussing the hospital's future -- regardless of what voters decide -- will make OCH stronger.
"After Tuesday, a lot of the hoopla will be over," he said. "As far as the ads, that's not the way I would go, but people are going to do what they have to do to get their message across."
The Dispatch could not reach Carol Stern for comment.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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