Investigators working for Attorney General Jim Hood have interviewed Mississippi Department of Transportation officials about possible political influence over a state-funded frontage-road project to give a gated Flowood neighborhood better access to a nearby highway.
Hood launched the investigation in July after Mississippi Today and The Clarion Ledger published articles highlighting plans for a $2 million frontage road that would benefit a subdivision where prominent Republicans live or own land, including Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and his brother, Todd, state Sen. Josh Harkins, Flowood Ald. Kirk McDaniel and several people who regularly contribute to political campaigns.
An MDOT spokesman confirmed to Mississippi Today that investigators have interviewed employees of the agency, which has turned over documents and digital correspondence related to the project. MDOT did not say which officials were interviewed or when the interviews took place.
“For any further information, you’ll need to contact the Attorney General’s office,” said MDOT spokesman Jason Scott.
The attorney general’s office did not answer specific questions about the probe, citing a policy to not comment on ongoing investigations.
Officials at the city of Flowood, who worked closely with MDOT officials for years on the frontage road project, have also been in communication with investigators. This summer, the city fulfilled a request from investigators to turn over any documents related to the project, according to Flowood officials.
“We haven’t heard back from them,” Josh Carlisle, the Flowood city clerk, told Mississippi Today on Monday. “They never talked to any individual employees of the city.”
Hood’s office contacted Reeves’ office earlier this year. In July, Hood told Reeves and his staff to preserve any documents related to the frontage-road project. In a July 26 letter, Reeves responded by saying he conducted two independent reviews of any role his office might have played in moving the frontage-road project along and said that “no written documents have been found that meet the criteria of your request.”
When asked if Hood’s investigators had asked for or completed interviews with Reeves aides, Laura Hipp, a spokeswoman for Reeves, responded: “Not to my knowledge.”
The $2 million frontage road, the final phase of a $46 million Lakeland Drive expansion project, would have connected 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 south on state Highway 25 headed toward Jackson. No other existing businesses or neighborhoods would have benefited from the frontage road.
MDOT Executive Director Melinda McGrath earlier this year told Geoff Pender, the Clarion-Ledger’s political editor, that “political pressure” from the Senate led to MDOT’s decision to construct the frontage road. The planning of the project also bumped other needed safety projects down the department’s priority list, a Mississippi Today investigation found.
After the frontage road articles published, Transportation Commission Chairman Dick Hall, who for months asked MDOT engineers to keep him closely updated on the road plans, announced he would postpone the project; the agency originally planned to solicit construction bids this summer.
Hall, a Republican, said at the time he wanted to reassess the merits of the project for improving safety and acknowledged that media reports influenced his decision to postpone it.
In July, Hood sent letters to more than 50 state officials asking them to preserve any records they might have related to the planned frontage road.
The letter went to Reeves’ office, senators and leaders at the MDOT, 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,” Hood wrote in the letter.
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.
The political fallout from the controversy has already begun and will likely rollover into next year’s gubernatorial election.
Reeves, a Republican, plans to formally announce his 2019 bid for governor in the coming weeks and, given his multi-million campaign fund, would likely be the frontrunner for his party’s nomination. Hood, a Democrat, has already announced his 2019 campaign for governor.
In a 20-minute news conference in late July, Reeves took few questions after he claimed vindication and presented a letter he received from McGrath. He has consistently maintained he had no hand in the project and accused Hood of “political grandstanding.”
“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 this summer.
Hood, meanwhile, has denied any political motivation behind launching the investigation.