Hood: Reeves improperly pushed frontage road project
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood released an investigative report Wednesday that says his rival in this year’s governor’s race, Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, improperly sought to influence a roadbuilding project near Reeves’ neighborhood.
Hood also said Reeves withheld documents, and that the “refusal to produce records has impeded the investigation and prevented a full report on the subject.”
However, Hood said he will not pursue any civil action seeking to make Reeves repay the public costs of the planning for the frontage road, which was not built. Hood said he could not complete a criminal investigation because Reeves did not provide all the documents requested.
The 43-page document was released more than a year after the Clarion Ledger first reported Reeves had pushed the Mississippi Department of Transportation to speed up the widening of U.S. Highway 25, also known as Lakeland Drive in the metro Jackson area, and to build a frontage road near Lakeland Drive to the gated subdivision where Reeves lives in the Jackson suburb of Flowood.
The Nov. 5 governor’s election is in less than eight weeks.
“After a year of big talk, Jim Hood admits he proved no wrongdoing and can take no action,” Reeves campaign spokesman Parker Briden said. “This is just a 43-page political dirty trick by Jim Hood.”
Hood said in a news release: “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.”
The report says the attorney general’s office requested email, text messages and other communication from the lieutenant governor’s office, the state Senate and the Mississippi Department of Transportation about the road project. Reeves responded that “no written documents” had been found. Reeves also said he had no legal obligation to provide that information, and he did not give it to the attorney general’s office.
The attorney general’s report said no investigator interviewed Reeves or any senator about the road project “because it is necessary to have the underlying documents to conduct a proper examination.”
Hood said he asked two former Mississippi Supreme Court justices, Ed Pittman and David Chandler, to review the report before he released it to the public.
Chandler wrote that “a reasonable factfinder” could read Hood’s report and conclude that Reeves applied political pressure to have a road built. But, Chandler also wrote that he does not believe Reeves could have received enough financial benefit from the project to create a problem under the state constitution.
According to Hood’s news release, Pittman raised questions about whether Reeves violated the constitution’s prohibition on public officials having a financial interest in state contracts.
The attorney general’s report shows there was communication about the proposed frontage road between the Department of Transportation and the property owners association in Reeves’ neighborhood, and that Reeves’ wife, Elee, was elected to the association’s board of directors in September 2017. The report said that because of demands from the property owners association, the Department of Transportation spent $322,721 of public money to obtain rights of way and construction easement and about $80,000 for a preliminary engineering report for the proposed frontage road.
Under a section titled “Obfuscation,” the attorney general’s report said: “Although the July 26, 2018, letter signed 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 topic, with 15 specifically concerning the frontage road.”
The attorney general’s report shows that one of Reeves’ staff members, Kenny Ray Ellis, and a Department of Transportation legislative liaison, Michael Arnemann, used personal email accounts to exchange messages in July 2014 about the widening of Lakeland Drive and the construction of a frontage road from Lakeland Drive to Reeves’ subdivision.
“Arnemann, here is the list of questions that the LTG would like answers to in regards to the Lakeland project,” Ellis wrote, asking about the purchase of rights of way, the moving of utilities and the projected construction dates.
The attorney general’s report shows that Ellis and Arnemann later used state email accounts to communicate about road construction and that another Reeves staff member at the time, Lee Weiskopf, started communicating with Arnemann in the fall of 2014.
“MDOT Executive Director Melinda McGrath stated ... that from 2014 to 2016 there were numerous updates provided to the Lieutenant Governor’s Office and several meetings with the Lieutenant Governor in which she provided updates on the project to him,” the attorney general’s report said.
In 2014, elected three-member Transportation Commission told McGrath to stop all highway widening projects “until they could address critical infrastructure needs,” the attorney general’s report said.
The widening of Lakeland Drive was ninth on the list but the department was required to move it ahead of the other eight projects and to add the frontage road to the Lakeland drive expansion, the report said. The report said Department of Transportation employees wrote in emails that the frontage road was unnecessary and would be used by only a small group of people.
Arnemann has left the Department of Transportation and is now registered as a lobbyist for the Mississippi Asphalt Paving Association.
This story has been corrected to show that the Department of Transportation spent $322,721 of public money to obtain rights of way and construction easement, not $32,721.