High court ruling grants Tax Assessor Entergy data
Wednesday, February 26, 2014 12:00 PM
Entergy has no plans to appeal a recent state Supreme Court ruling that forces the utility to hand over personal customer data to Madison County Tax Assessor Gerald Barber.
On Feb. 20, the Mississippi Supreme Court unanimously affirmed a decision by the Madison County Circuit Court denying the utility's motion to quash a grand jury subpoena seeking information on approximately 20,000 customers in Madison and Canton zip codes.
"We believe it's our responsibility to our customers to keep their information confidential, to the greatest extent possible," Haley Fisackerly, president and CEO, said. "Therefore, it's been our policy not to release customer information to third parties. The court has decided in Madison County's favor, however, and we will comply with its ruling."
Barber says he needs the data to help flush out homestead exemption fraud in the county. He used similar data from Madison and Ridgeland water department files.
"We will audit the 8,235 homestead accounts in the subject area that have applied for special tax exemption and compare the homestead names with the utility customers for those properties," he explained. "If they don't match we will continue to edit and investigate just like we do in the cities.
"There are sometimes legitimate reasons for the names not to match and we will determine the circumstances as we move forward," he added.
Barber said they have recouped approximately $150,000 over the years for Madison County and "should at least get a similar number in the unincorporated areas for the next few years."
He added, "Statewide, this decision could result in millions of dollars in tax fraud dollars being recovered."
It all began on Oct. 7, 2011, when Barber requested information. On Jan. 18, 2012, Entergy was served with a grand jury subpoena for information for just Deerfield, Lake Caroline and Ashbrooke subdivisions.
Then, on March 12, 2012, another grand jury subpoena called for all account names and billing addresses in the 39110 and 39046 zip codes.
On May 27, 2012, Entergy filed a motion to quash and a hearing was set for Aug. 10, 2012. Two days before the hearing, the second subpoena was replaced with a new one calling for only "residential accounts" in those zip codes.
The matter appeared in Madison County Circuit Court on Sept. 6, 2012 and a stay order was issued by Judge John Emfinger.
Both sides filed court briefs back on May 31, 2013 awaiting the high court's ruling.
Entergy called the subpoena a fishing expedition by Barber and an invasion of privacy.
The county's subpoena request, Entergy court documents say, is "an impermissible fishing expedition that seeks confidential data for general inquiry purposes that are not based on probable cause as to a crime that may have been committed by any particular identifiable person or group of persons."
The utility company believed it should have been quashed for several reasons.
It states, among other arguments, "(Entergy's) customer information is subject to legal protection as confidential proprietary business information constituting a trade secret under Mississippi law. The Tax Assessor's attempt to use (Entergy) as an investigative arm of its office for purpose of civil tax enforcement is an abuse of process.
"The Tax Assessor's involvement constitutes an improper influence on grand jury proceedings."
The Mississippi Supreme Court saw it differently.
As far as Barber's involvement in the grand jury process, it ruled "The tax assessor's involvement did not improperly influence the grand jury, violate the secrecy rules of grand jury proceedings, or violate the separation of powers doctrine."
The court also said due process and privacy rights were not violated as a result of the subpoena.
"The subpoena sought names and addresses of Entergy customers," the opinion read. "Individuals do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their names or addresses which appear in public records, especially in a grand jury proceeding."
And as far as whether or not it was a fishing expedition, the court said no.
"This court has approved other broad investigations which were lacking in individual suspicion but instead depended upon the broad public policy function of ensuring that laws and regulations are followed by the public," the opinion read.
"The state has an interest in ensuring that its constituents are paying their taxes properly."