- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 14, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant is searching for a new public safety commissioner as the current one prepares to retire after a rocky tenure.

Albert Santa Cruz, 76, announced Wednesday that he will step down Jan. 31. He has led the Department of Public Safety since then-Gov. Haley Barbour nominated him for the job in 2011, and has often had a tense relationship with legislators, particularly budget writers.

Under Santa Cruz’s tenure, DPS has upgraded its driver’s license system and improved the state crime lab, which it now calls the forensics lab. But the department has also had legal problems, and two of its divisions settled lawsuits with former employees earlier this year.

DPS includes the Highway Patrol, the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and the state Office of Homeland Security.

The Bureau of Narcotics settled a sexual harassment lawsuit for $25,000 and the Office of Homeland Security settled a sex discrimination lawsuit for $75,000. Both were filed by former employees.

Republican Bryant, who is wrapping up his fifth year as governor, will nominate a new commissioner, and that person must be confirmed by a majority of the GOP-led state Senate.

“Gov. Bryant has already started vetting candidates for the position,” Bryant spokesman Clay Chandler said in response to questions Wednesday. “Though there is no specific timetable, his goal is to identify and appoint the right person as quickly as possible.”

Bryant told The Clarion-Ledger in August that it was time for sexual harassment and sex discrimination to cease in state agencies.

“It’ll stop at this office going forward with all executive agencies, with any power and influence I have over other agencies that are in the state,” Bryant told the newspaper. “We have to take responsibility if things are going wrong and obviously there are things that have gone wrong, and what I can do now is help remedy those, but make sure people understand this better not happen again. And I think they’ve got that message. If they have not, you’ll see some career-altering decisions that will be made.”

Asked Wednesday whether the governor had asked Santa Cruz to retire, Chandler said: “Gov. Bryant and Santa Cruz have discussed the commissioner retiring for some time. During a recent conversation, the governor and the commissioner agreed this was the appropriate time.”

Chandler did not say whether the retirement is related to the lawsuits.

Santa Cruz, who has worked in law enforcement 43 years, said in a news release Wednesday: “It has been my honor and privilege to serve the dedicated employees of the Department of Public Safety, the Mississippi Highway Patrol and the citizens of this great state.”

During budget hearings in September 2013, Santa Cruz angered some lawmakers by providing few documents to back up his request for a 45 percent increase in the DPS budget when state revenue was growing about 5 percent a year. He received far short of what he requested. Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves scolded Santa Cruz for authorizing “realignment” of some DPS salaries, an administrative way of moving money within a budget to give employees bigger paychecks. That was not a pay raise, Santa Cruz responded. Reeves said it was a pay raise that legislators didn’t authorize.

Reeves also said DPS wasn’t spending money where it should - like, for example, buying new cars for troopers who were patrolling the highways in high-mileage vehicles. Santa Cruz said DPS had bought 15 new vehicles for MBI.

In a January 2014 report, the state auditor’s office said the Department of Public Safety had adequate control over day-to-day operations but needed to improve its budget preparation and planning. Santa Cruz had asked auditors to examine the department, and they looked at documents dating back to the budget year that started July 1, 2008.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: https://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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