Jim Hood launches investigation into frontage road; sends letter to Reeves, top officials

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Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press

Attorney General Jim Hood addresses the state business leaders Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017, at Hobnob, a social event sponsored by the state chamber of commerce.

The office of Attorney General Jim Hood has sent letters to more than 50 state officials asking them to preserve any records they might have related to a planned frontage road off Lakeland Drive from Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ neighborhood to a nearby traffic light at a shopping center.

The letter, which Mississippi Today obtained, went to Reeves’ office, members of the state Senate and leaders at the Mississippi Department of Transportation, which oversaw the project.

“As Attorney General of the State of Mississippi, our office is investigating and evaluating all potential claims the state may have arising out of the recently-reported $2 million ‘frontage road’ project that would connect the Oakridge and Dogwood subdivisions with Dogwood Festival Boulevard and its shopping center,” the letter states.

It continues: “The purpose of this investigation is to determine whether there exist any violations of Mississippi law.” One of the many potential outcomes of the ongoing investigation could be civil litigation or other legal proceedings arising under state law.

Reeves released a statement about two hours after the letter was delivered: “Last week, I asked Senate staff to review historical records available to them regarding the Frontage Road project. I have not been made aware of any communication between anyone within the office of the Lt. Governor and the Department of Transportation suggesting political pressure on this matter – a fact supported and confirmed in public comments by Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, Senate Transportation Chairman Willie Simmons, Flowood Mayor Gary Rhodes, and the Oak Ridge Homeowners Association. Over a week ago, I asked the Executive Director of the Department for any information that would refute that fact, and I continue to wait on her response. I’m not surprised Attorney General Hood has decided to play political games based on what appears to be false and discredited reporting by a newspaper; after all, grandstanding for the press is one his favorite pastimes.”

“MDOT maintains all records and does not delete any communications regarding official business,” MDOT spokesman Jason Scott said on Wednesday afternoon.

Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves carries his speaking points as he leaves a news conference where he spoke about controversial state-funded road projects, including one near his gated community, during a news conference in July 2018

The $2 million frontage road project was recently postponed by Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall after a story last week in the Clarion Ledger quoted McGrath saying pressure from the Senate, where Reeves presides, influenced the decision of the Mississippi Department of Transportation to build the road.

Before now Hood, the state’s top prosecutor, has declined to comment on the controversy or indicate whether his office would look further into the matter. It is generally believed that Hood is the Democrats’ leading candidate for governor in 2019 while Reeves will likely lead the Republican field.

When asked Wednesday afternoon if the probe was politically motivated, Hood’s office did not immediately respond.

The letter also asks Reeves to “please forward this letter to all current and former employees, including contract workers, who were employed by the Office of the Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi during any time between January 1, 2012, and the present.”

Reeves was sworn in Jan. 5, 2012 so the request would include the final days of now Gov. Phil Bryant’s tenure as lieutenant governor. Hood also cautioned officials and staff who have been involved with the road project to preserve “potentially relevant information,” which includes, “electronically and traditionally stored information.”

“Such information may be found in computers and computer tablets, including any network systems used in the relevant time period, cell phones, removable electronic media, laptop computers, home computers, and other electronic information,” the letter states.

The road was planned from two neighborhoods, Oak Ridge Trail and Dogwood Place, both located at the same intersection, to the Dogwood Festival shopping center where a traffic light is located. The point of the road would be to make it easier for the residents to turn left onto Lakeland back toward Jackson.

MDOT

Central District Highway Commissioner Dick Hall

While praising McGrath, Hall said he made the decision to construct the road for safety reasons and that he was not contacted by Reeves or his office about the road.

But Hall now says the road might not be needed for safety reasons. He said the recent widening of Lakeland in the area from four to six lanes makes it easier for residents of the two neighborhoods to turn left from their intersection because the traffic is more spread out.

In last week’s news conference, Reeves told reporters even though he had no hand in planning the frontage road, he is a “champion” and advocate for the $43 million project to widen Lakeland Drive.

McGrath has not commented on the request from Reeves.