Yesterday, Attorney General Jim Hood added intrigue to what was already a pretty contentious feud brewing between Lt. Governor Tate Reeves and Melinda McGrath, Agency Head and MDOT over the proposed construction of a frontage road on Lakeland Drive that intersects the neighborhood where Reeves lives.
Hood announced in a letter said that he would be investigating the issue and issued a letter to Reeves in an attempt to set the benchmarks for document retention.
Reeves challenged Hood right back squarely at Hood and the reporting behind the initial story . . .
“Last week, I asked Senate staff to review historical records available to them regarding the Frontage Road project. I have not been made aware of any communication between anyone within the office of the Lt. Governor and the Department of Transportation suggesting political pressure on this matter – a fact supported and confirmed in public comments by Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, Senate Transportation Chairman Willie Simmons, Flowood Mayor Gary Rhodes, and the Oak Ridge Homeowners Association.
Over a week ago, I asked the Executive Director of the Department for any information that would refute that fact, and I continue to wait on her response. I’m not surprised Attorney General Hood has decided to play political games based on what appears to be false and discredited reporting by a newspaper; after all, grandstanding for the press is one his favorite pastimes.”
To complicate matters, like Tate Reeves, Jim Hood has spoken publicly of his desires to run for Governor in 2019, but has stated that so far his family is not 100% on board with that idea. That places Hood in a position to essentially initiate and steer an investigation that he could arguably and ultimately have a personal/political direct interest in.
Update from 7/19
“There’s enough evidence there, the people need to know.” Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood on his investigation of a $2 million road to Lt. Governor Tate Reeves gated subdivision in Flowood. Reeves accused Hood of “grandstanding.”
Posted by Ross Adams – 16 WAPT on Thursday, July 19, 2018
It all started last Monday, July 9, when a Clarion Ledger story written by Geoff Pender broke accusing Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves of putting pressure on MDOT to use transportation dollars to fund a new $2 million frontage road that would connect his subdivision to Dogwood Festival Market. Marshall Ramsey’s cartoon was teed up and at the ready.
The article, run by the Clarion ledger, cited sources that said that the road is not necessary, and is only being built because of “political force” put on MDOT by the Lt. Governor’s office. Their claim comes from a statement by Executive Director of MDOT Melida McGrath, who they quoted saying:
“Yes. Political pressure. From the legislature. We would not have done this otherwise.”
She never specifically named Reeves as the culprit, but eventually specified that the pressure came “from the Senate side”.
After the piece ran, a series of events began to unfold.
The Clarion Ledger took their third swing with a scathing follow on editorial calling for a full scale investigation, saying the project should be scrapped and laying down comparisons to the supervisor scandals of the 1980s.
Then, on Wednesday the 11th, the Lt. Gov. held a press conference where he point blank denied any type of involvement or coercion by himself or his office to put this road plan into place. He went so far as to accuse the Clarion Ledger of “making up the story” altogether.
To take it one step further, he wrote a letter addressed to McGrath, and he asked her (to essentially put up or shut up) for her assistance in identifying any specific instances, that she hinted at, that count as unacceptable interactions between MDOT and legislature.
“If you had any unacceptable interactions with anyone in the Legislature on this or any other project that goes outside the bounds of the body’s duty to be engaged in monitoring the department and holding accountable, I need to know about it so I can investigate and take corrective steps if warranted,”
Reeves said if he or his office had talked to MDOT about that road, or any Mississippi roads was because neighbors or other constituents wanted updates, not him personally.
He did advocate previously for widening the busy Lakeland Drive near where he lives, but was not involved in advocating for the frontage road project in question.
Just before Reeves spoke on the topic, that morning Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall held a press conference to address the allegations and took full responsibility for the decision made on the road. He said he was previously under the impression that the state-funded road was needed for safety reasons but after further inspection of the actual numbers, he could have been incorrect.
“If anybody’s to blame for this, it’s me because I did feel it should be built as far as safety reasons. If a study shows that we don’t need to build it because of safety concerns, then we are not going to build it.”
Hall went on to reiterate that same statement days later on Supertalk with Paul Gallo. Also, Senate Transportation Chairman Willie Simmons went on Gallo and backed up Reeves version of the story.
Hall said he was previously under the impression that a now six lane road would be more dangerous than the previous four lane road, but when the numbers were crunched the six lanes are actually better for traffic because it allowed for more space between cars.
When it comes to whether or not Reeves’ office contacted the department about road projects, Hall said it isn’t uncommon for legislators to inquire about roads being constructed in their area on behalf of their constituents.
Clarion Ledger stands by MDOT records they looked at that reported the Lakeland intersection that was widened was safe before and during the construction.
This may be the opening salvo into a full-on 2019 campaign season. With the Neshoba County Fair less than two weeks away and them speaking with 15 minutes of each other on Wednesday (with Reeves going last), you can absolutely bet that there will be verbal punches thrown over this latest issue and what 2019 might look like.
In short, Neshoba just got a whole lot more interesting.
Whether or not Hood and Reeves ultimately tangle on an election ballot in November 2019, the stage is set for all sorts of direct and proxy political battles in the months ahead.
Sarah Ulmer contributed to the writing of this story.