Reeves claims vindication in road controversy; MDOT head McGrath maintains politics at play

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Mississippi Department of Transportation Executive Director Melinda McGrath

Mississippi Department of Transportation Executive Director Melinda McGrath, in a letter to Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, did not take back her claim that Senate pressure played a role in the decision to construct a $2 million frontage road from a neighborhood where Reeves lives to a nearby traffic light.

McGrath wrote the letter in response to a request from Reeves for her to document instances of undue pressure from the Legislature.

In the letter, which was released Thursday, she wrote: “The office of lieutenant governor’s ongoing interest in the Highway 25/Lakeland Drive widening project assigned heightened importance and priority to this project.

“In the course of our regular project updates, your staff was made aware of utility delays that had the potential of slowing the construction schedule. Your staff took the highly unusual step of communicating directly with utility providers and worked to resolve various issues to keep the project on schedule – using political authority that MDOT does not possess.”

She went on to write, “as you know, undocumented verbal conversations may very quickly turn into ‘she said, he said’  scenario – otherwise known as hearsay. The questions posed by your letter have caused the Department to consider additions to our documentation policy to ensure all information requests are captured.”

The frontage road project was the final phase of a $46 million widening of Highway 25/Lakeland Drive.

In 2015, McGrath wrote that the Legislature mandated that MDOT bypass its normal construction/maintenance process to widen a section of Lakeland Drive in Rankin County from four to six lanes without providing any additional funds.

“The legislative mandate forced MDOT to divert funding and significantly delay multiple road and bridge preservation projects,” she wrote.

After McGrath said earlier this month that “political pressure” from the Senate led to the decision of MDOT to commit to constructing the frontage road, Reeves sent a letter to McGrath on July 11 imploring her to provide evidence that anyone in the Senate tried to influence the agency to construct the frontage road.

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 Wednesday, July 11, 2018, at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss.

Reeves denies any involvement in the decision to construct the frontage road from his subdivision to a traffic light to provide easier access to busy Lakeland Drive in Rankin County.

In a 20 minute news conference Thursday at the state Capitol where Reeves took limited questions, he presented the McGrath letter as vindication that no undue pressure was applied from the Senate on the project.

He referenced a paragraph in the letter where McGrath wrote, “I have never indicated any inappropriate, unacceptable or unlawful communication with a member of the Legislature.”

In terms of the Legislature in 2014 mandating the Lakeland Drive widening, he said that was the constitutional right of the Legislature.

“When duly elected representatives of the people perform their constitutional responsibility of appropriating funds, that is not political pressure. It is the enacted law of the land in our state,” he said.

The frontage road would be located between two gated neighborhoods, consisting of fewer than 150 homes, to a red light at a shopping center to make it easier for the residents to turn left back toward Jackson. No other businesses or neighborhoods would benefit from the frontage road.

Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall announced he was postponing the project, which was set to be bid out for construction later this month. He said he wanted to re-assess whether the project is needed because of safety concerns. Plus, he acknowledged that media reports influenced his decision to postpone it.

Attorney General Jim Hood last week launched a probe into the matter, calling for Reeves staffers and lawmakers retain any relevant records.

Reeves accused Hood of “political grandstanding” in sending the letter and said senators, including his office, were not bound by the request.

“However, I like you, want to resolve any outstanding questions about the project for the public’s interest, and therefore, I am voluntarily responding to your request,” he said.

He said two separate searches by third parties have found no correspondence related to the frontage road.

“The real scandal here is the attorney general of the state using the threat of the prosecutorial powers of his office for his own personal and political benefit,” Reeves said.