Gov. Tate Reeves speaks during the 2023 Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss., Thursday, July 27, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Employees of a company that Republican Gov. Tate Reeves’ campaign accused in a TV ad of illegally donating to his Democratic opponent, Brandon Presley, are threatening to sue the governor’s campaign if it doesn’t take the ad off the air.

Jackson-based attorney William Manuel wrote a letter on behalf of solar energy company Silicon Ranch to Reeves campaign manager Elliott Husbands, saying the ad contains audio “falsely accusing” employees of the energy company of breaking the law. 

“In consideration of the foregoing, should you fail to immediately cease broadcasting, publishing, and promoting the subject of the advertisement, Silicon Ranch will pursue all available legal remedies to cease the publication of this defamatory advertisement, including seeking injunctive relief and damages for the continued improper publishing and broadcasting of the advertisement,” Manuel wrote.

READ MORE: The full cease-and-desist letter the Reeves campaign received

The ad in question aired on Oct. 6 and accused Presley, north Mississippi’s current public service commissioner, of illegally accepting campaign contributions from employees of the Tennessee-based company that does business in Mississippi. Presley has denied his campaign ran afoul of state campaign finance law with the donations. 

The basis for Reeves’ ad revolves around a statute that forbids public service commissioners, who regulate public utilities, from taking campaign donations from representatives of public utilities the commission is responsible for regulating. 

But Manuel contends in the letter that Silicon Ranch, a producer of of solar energy, is not considered a public utility under Mississippi law, which would, in theory, clear the way for Presley to accept those donations legally. 

Clifton Carroll, a Reeves spokesman, told Mississippi Today in a statement that Manuel’s letter shows Reeves and the Silicon Ranch donors are “afraid of being caught using campaign donations to corruptly influence PSC actions.”

“… When applying the law and the facts to the matter at hand, it is unlawful for Brandon Presley to accept campaign contributions from any agent of the Corporation,” Carroll said. “And that’s exactly what Brandon Presley did.” 

The cease and desist letter cites a 2017 order that was approved unanimously by the three-member Public Service Commission. The order was based on the findings of the Public Service Commission staff, which is independent of the commission itself. The director of the PSC staff was appointed by then-Gov. Phil Bryant.

The order states: “Petitioner Silicon Ranch is not a public utility and the project is not utility property under the laws of the state of Mississippi. It is further ordered that petitioner Silicon Ranch is not subject to the Commission’s jurisdiction except for the requirement of obtaining a certificate of public convenience and necessity.”

The order gave Silicon Ranch the authority to generate and sell electricity generated at a site in Lauderdale County to Mississippi Power, a public utility. Silicon Ranch was not providing electricity to the general public.

The Reeves campaign ads accusing Presley and Silicon Ranch of violating state law have run extensively across the state for several days. The cease-and-desist letter also was sent to Mississippi and Memphis television stations. But as of Wednesday morning, the ad was still airing.

If the solar company does follow through with legal action against the governor’s campaign, it could mean they will have to spend money defending the ad in court and prove the contents were not defamatory.

Reeves and Presley will compete against one another in the state’s general election on Nov. 7.

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Taylor, a native of Grenada, covers state government and statewide elections. He is a graduate of the University of Mississippi and Holmes Community College. Before joining Mississippi Today, Taylor reported on state and local government for the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, where he received an award for his coverage of the federal government’s lawsuit against the state’s mental health system.

Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.