Frontage road probe: Reeves refutes Hood’s findings, pans report as ‘inaccurate and deceptive’

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves speaks to supporters during his election watch party after winning the GOP nomination for governor Tuesday, August 27, 2019.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, the subject of a 14-month investigation from Attorney General Jim Hood and gubernatorial opponent of Hood this November, blasted Hood this week over his investigative report released on Wednesday, calling the report’s findings “factually inaccurate and deceptive.”

“Democrat Jim Hood abused his office as Attorney General to perform a political stunt that has been a year in the making,” the Reeves campaign said in a lengthy 1,000-word statement issued on Thursday afternoon. “Just six weeks before voting begins, Hood released a factually inaccurate and deceptive report smearing Tate Reeves — a trick so dirty that it would make James Comey and Hillary Clinton proud.”

Last July, before either Hood or Reeves had announced their intentions to run for governor in 2019, Hood launched an investigation into whether Reeves applied political pressure to the Mississippi Department of Transportation to plan and construct a $2 million frontage road that would connect Reeves’ gated Flowood neighborhood to easier highway access.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Jim Hood released the findings Wednesday of his investigation of the now killed  frontage road project.

Hood released the findings of the 14-month investigation on Wednesday, publishing emails that indicate Reeves, through his Senate staff, initiated conversations with MDOT about the frontage road and continually asked MDOT officials for updates about the project.

The attorney general’s report also said Reeves and others refused to cooperate with the investigation, making it difficult to find all the facts without pursuing legal action.

“Jim Hood did not interview Tate Reeves or any member of his staff,” the Reeves campaign said in a statement on Thursday afternoon. “He provided no opportunity for the people he was accusing to rebut his accusations in person. Jim Hood did not want to know the truth, so he did not ask the question.”

Attorneys in the frontage road report wrote that they didn’t interview Reeves because Reeves would not provide documents from the lieutenant governor’s office and Senate.

“Due to the refusal to provide the requested documents, no interview of the Lieutenant Governor or senator was requested because it is necessary to have the underlying documents to conduct a proper examination,” the attorney general’s report read.

Reeves publicly refused to turn over documents to Hood, writing in a July 2018 letter that he conducted two “independent reviews of electronic communications by and between me or any members of my staff with anyone at the Department of Transportation regarding the frontage road project,” and that “no written documents have been found that meet the criteria of your request.”

In his report released on Wednesday, Hood’s office included 15 emails from members of Reeves’ staff to MDOT officials specifically regarding the frontage road project. Two of Reeves’ staffers emailed MDOT staff about the frontage road project through their private email accounts, not their state government email accounts.

Speaking to the media on Friday for the first time since the attorney general’s report was released, Reeves said he provided documents for the investigation, which directly counters what the attorney general’s report says.

“We did provide him (Hood) all the information he asked for and the reality is there was nothing there,” Reeves said on Friday in a brief interview during a break in budget hearings. “The reason there was nothing there is because I was not involved in the frontage road.”

When pressed on Friday about what specific documents he provided to investigators, Reeves ignored the follow-up questions, saying there was no new information in the report.

“We responded to the attorney general’s original questions,” he said, reiterating that the attorney general did not interview him or the key participants in the frontage road controversy.

The Reeves campaign on Thursday also outed who they believe to be the attorney general’s confidential informant, who provided a great deal of testimony to investigators and was “granted confidential informant status to the extent he/she provided information involving potential criminal activity.”

The Reeves campaign publicly said that Michael Arnemann, who was a legislative liaison for the Department of Transportation for several years and is now executive director of the Mississippi Asphalt Pavement Association, was “the source of this smear.”

While the Reeves campaign believes it knows the identity of the confidential informant, no official state government entity, including the attorney general’s office, has confirmed the identity of the informant. Arnemann has not responded this week to requests for comment.

The confidential informant told investigators that he “felt like there was influence from the Lt. Governor by using his position to get the frontage road,” and he “felt queasy about it” so he put it on email servers. The informant also told investigators that “the Lt. Governor was actively participating” in the frontage road planning through his staff, and that Reeves “saying that he knew nothing about the project is not true.”

The Mississippi Asphalt Pavement Association, which Arnemann runs, has donated several thousand dollars to Hood’s campaign this cycle, as have more than a dozen other interest groups representing road builders. The Reeves campaign suggested Arnemann divulged information to Hood for political reasons.

“What discussions has Hood had with the Asphalt PAC or their lobbyist Michael Arnemann about this report and/or coordinated campaign activity and donations?” the Reeves campaign wrote in their Thursday statement to reporters, listed under the label: “Questions that must be answered.”



Frontage Road-Attorney Generals Office Report (Text)

The Reeves campaign also released a three-minute YouTube video on Thursday. In the video, in-house interviews were conducted with Flowood Mayor Gary Rhoads and Reeves’ Flowood neighbor Gary Herring. Both men, who are campaign donors of Reeves, maintained that Reeves had nothing to do with the planning of the frontage road project.

In the video, Rhoads tells a story about a woman who had an accident at the Flowood neighborhood’s intersection with Lakeland Drive in 2013 — four years before that section of the highway was expanded from four lanes to six lanes. The video also shows a July 2018 news clip of Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall saying he pushed the project “for safety reasons.”

In emails obtained last year by Mississippi Today, MDOT employees internally decried the frontage road project’s planning despite the intersection in question not meeting several safety standards for such a project. Several MDOT officials told attorney general investigators the same thing.

“MDOT has nine separate warrants, or tests, that are considered before implementing a traffic improvement, and most are volume based,” the attorney general’s report said. “They also consider crashes in the area and if a signal will improve the traffic flow, based on their engineering judgement. The frontage road request did not meet any of these tests.”

The state spent $463,000 on plans and right-of-way purchases for the frontage road, and MDOT officials spent 1,740 hours on the project before it was killed in July 2018. The construction itself was expected to cost $2 million.

Suggesting Reeves could have violated the ethics clause of the state Constitution, which bars personal financial gain of public officials, Hood’s office wrote in its Wednesday report that it would leave the pursuit of any civil action against anyone involved to the next attorney general, who will be elected this November.

Republican Lynn Fitch faces Democrat Jennifer Riley Collins in the Nov. 5 election for attorney general.

Contributing: Bobby Harrison