A former Supreme Court justice, after reviewing a report from the office of Attorney General Jim Hood, said “a reasonable fact-finder” could conclude Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves “applied political pressure” in an attempt to get a state-funded frontage road constructed from his gated neighborhood off the busy Lakeland Drive in Rankin County to easier highway access.
Former state Supreme Court Justice David Chandler also pointed out that the fact that Reeves and his wife owned “a membership share” in the Oakridge Subdivision “could implicate the ethics clause of the state Constitution.”
Hood’s office released the 43-page report Wednesday based on a 14-month-long probe into a now-mothballed plan to construct a frontage road that would have provided better access to a Flowood neighborhood where Reeves and his family live.
The AG’s office requested that Chandler and former Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin Pittman review the report to help avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest since the Democratic Hood and the Republican Reeves are vying for the open post of governor this year.
Last year, several media outlets reported plans for the $2 million project. In June 2018, Mississippi Department of Transportation Executive Director Melinda McGrath told The Clarion Ledger that “political pressure” from the Senate, where Reeves presides, led to MDOT’s decision to plan construction of the $2 million frontage road.
In a statement, Parker Briden, a spokesperson for the Reeves campaign, said, “After a year of big talk, Jim Hood admits he proved no wrongdoing and can take no action. This is just a 43 page political dirty trick by Jim Hood. The only new information is we now know the source of this smear is the lobbyist who’s the number one contributor to Tate Reeves’ opponent.”
Briden said the lobbyist he was referencing is Michael Arnemann, who was a legislative liaison for the Department of Transportation and is now executive director of the Mississippi Asphalt Pavement Association. The report does include emails where at the time Arnemann talks about Reeves’ staff asking for updates about the frontage road that was going to cost about $2 million.
Mississippi Today published a story that shed light into the extent to which influential Republicans monitored the project’s progress. After those reports surfaced, Hood launched an investigation in July 2018 and requested emails and other correspondence related to the project from Reeves’ office, state senators, Senate staff and MDOT employees.
The Hood frontage-road report contains several new pieces of information as well as separate opinions from the two former state supreme court justices: Chandler, a former state supreme court justice who in 2015 was appointed by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant to oversee the state’s child welfare agency, and Pittman.
In a statement, Hood said the judges, who run for office in officially nonpartisan elections, were selected “to provide a bipartisan review of this report and to offer their legal opinions based on the evidence presented in the report.”
The report said Reeves and others refused to cooperate making it difficult to find all the facts without pursuing legal action. The AG’s office said it would leave the issue of whether to pursue civil action to possibly recoup the about $470,000 spent on the frontage road before it was halted and the 1,740 hours spent by the Transportation Department employees on the project up to the next attorney general elected this November.
“My view is that the report speaks for itself. It should be read by the press and public, which can make their own judgment as to the actions and conduct of Lt. Gov. Reeves,” Hood said in a statement.
The report highlights email communications between transportation agency officials and Reeves aides, Kenny Ellis and Lee Weiskopf, Reeves’ legislative liaison and former policy director.
On February 2, 2016, Arnemann wrote to Weiskopf that “we are currently in discussions with the city (of Flowood) about the details of the frontage road. I should know more about that and the specifics of it in couple of weeks.”
In July 2014, Ellis emailed a list of questions Reeves — identified as “LTG” for lieutenant governor — wanted answers to about acquisition of right-of-ways, utilities, budget and timelines for a “Lakeland project.” Hood’s report states that Reeves’ aides discussed the Lakeland project as consisting of two parts: Phase I was a widening project that was already under way, while Phase II was the frontage road project.
“Although the July 26, 2018, letter by the lieutenant governor states that no records were found, there were 22 emails between the lieutenant governor’s staff and the MDOT regarding the (Lakeland Drive widening) topic, with 15 specifically concerning the frontage road,” the report said.
The Hood report also notes that Reeves signed a letter saying no communications existed between his office and the agency.
An MDOT official, whose name is not identified in the report, said Senate Transportation Chairman Willie Simmons, told him: “Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves wanted to do something about the traffic on Lakeland Drive because it was bad and that it takes a long time to get from the interstate to his home.” A Democrat, Simmons recently won the central district Democratic nomination to serve on the three-member Mississippi Transportation Commission.
The unidentified MDOT employee said there was “influence from the lieutenant governor by using his position to get the frontage road.”
That employee said, as McGrath has in the past, the entire Lakeland Drive widening project was pushed up the department’s priority list at the expense of other projects throughout the state.
The report also details Flowood Mayor Gary Rhodes telling McGrath that “if she did not build the frontage road, the Legislature would write it into the law.”
When the story broke about the frontage road, Rhodes said Reeves called and “cursed him out,” the attorney general’s report says.
The report also references a provision of the Mississippi Constitution that states: “No public officer or member of the legislature shall be interested, directly or indirectly, in any contract with the state, or any district, county, city, or town thereof, authorized by any law passed or order made by any board of which he may be or may have been a member, during the term for which he shall have been chosen, or within one year after the expiration of such term.”
The report goes on to say the investigation “was hampered by misleading public statements and the refusal to produce documents which should have been available.”
Reeves, after letters from that probe leaked last year, said his office and senators were exempt from the state’s Open Records Law and did not have to produce such correspondence. For his part, Reeves said his office conducted an internal investigation and maintained that no such correspondence existed — findings that are challenged in Wednesday’s attorney general’s report.
During the 14-month investigation, Reeves has ardently denied exerting political influence for the frontage road project, though he conceded he worked to pass the legislative mandate that MDOT widen Lakeland Drive near his neighborhood — the project in which the frontage road plans were included.
Other Republican elected officials who also lived in or owned property in the same neighborhood as Reeves were his brother, Todd, state Sen. Josh Harkins, Flowood Alderman Kirk McDaniel and several people who regularly contribute to political campaigns. After the news articles surfaced last year, Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, who chairs the three-member Transportation Commission, stopped work on the frontage road.
“I don’t know of anything inappropriate,” Hall said at the time. “If I was the lieutenant governor, I would have interest (in the project) and would have made my interest known. Nobody did anything illegal.”
In July 2018, Reeves took few questions about the project from reporters 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.
Chandler was elected to the Court of Appeals in 2000 and ran for and won a seat on the Supreme Court in 2009. In 2015, Chandler stepped down from the state’s highest court and was appointed by Bryant as Mississippi’s first executive director of the state’s Child Protection Services to oversee a beleaguered foster care system. He served in that post until September 2017.
Bryant, among the top backers of Reeves for governor this year, praised Chandler’s service upon his appointment and retirement.
“Dr. Chandler has done a remarkable job leading Child Protection Services,” Bryant said. “He has dedicated himself to improving the lives of our most vulnerable children. Our foster care system has made significant progress under his direction, and I wish him the best upon his well-deserved retirement.”
Pittman has a long political history in the state. He served on the state Supreme Court from 1989 until 2004, including a stint as chief justice. Before then, he served in the statewide posts of attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer and as a state senator from his hometown of Hattiesburg.