Lt. Governor Tate Reeves received a response letter from MDOT Director Melinda McGrath where he asked her to provide proof of “political pressure” in the road project investigation. That response from McGrath sparked a ranging press conference today where Reeves fielded questions from reporters. What seems clear is that the original nefarious sounding claims of graft and political influence now seem to be nothing more than the entire Mississippi Legislature, through the lawful appropriations process, prioritizing the Lakeland Drive/Highway 25 project and MDOT staff having issues with that.
Originally, the Lt. Governor wrote McGrath after comments she made to the media insinuating that someone from the legislature, she pointed specifically to the Senate side, put “political pressure” on MDOT to carry out an expected $2 million frontage road project as part of the Lakeland Drive widening project.
These statements caused quite a stir. It caused MDOT to throw the brakes on the project, which was followed instantaneously by a scathing Clarion Ledger editorial, and public threats of an investigation to be opened by the office of Attorney General Jim Hood.
As Reeves began his press conference today, he shared the stage with an enlarged sign, used as a visual aid, containing a quote from McGrath’s July 24 letter:
“…I have never indicated any inappropriate, unacceptable, or unlawful communication with a member of the legislature…”
This new statement directly contradicts what had previously been reported in the media about the origin of “the road project.” McGrath was quoted in the Clarion Ledger that the project was unduly influenced by “political pressure” from “the Senate side.” To that comment, the Lt. Governor questioned whether she had been living under a rock for the last few weeks.
Perhaps some confusion lies within the definition of political pressure and the responsibilities of a legislator. In the recent letter, McGrath provided her definition of political pressure as, “any legislative prioritization mandate” and points to an appropriations bill passed in 2014. To that the Lt. Governor said, “no ma’am.”
“When duly elected representatives of the people perform their constitutional responsibility of appropriating funds that is not political pressure it is the enacted law of the land in our state,” Lt. Gov. Reeves said.
The funds for the expansion for Highway 25, or Lakeland Drive, came in an appropriations bill that was approved by both the House and Senate in 2015. The bill would allow for $10 million to be used in this expansion and nowhere in that legislation was the talk of a frontage road according to Reeves.
After the change of statement by McGrath, Reeves alerted the Attorney General of the findings in response to the AG’s original letter to Reeves and other members of the Senate putting them “on notice” for an investigation.
“To be clear, I have been advised by Counsel that your informal document requests that were included in your document preservation letter create no legal obligation on the Senate, my office or any individual Senators to produce such documents,” Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves wrote in his response. “However I, like you, want to resolve any outstanding questions about the project for the public’s interest, and therefore, I am voluntarily responding to your request.”
Reeves responded with a letter to the AG stating that two independent reviews of electronic legislative communications made by Reeves or any member of his staff with anyone at the Department of Transportation regarding “the road project” without waiving the legislative privilege that he and other Senators have under Mississippi law, no written documents were found to meet the criteria of Hood’s request.
Reeves stands by his statements that neither he nor his office were involved in improperly coercing the Department of Transportation in anyway to move forward with the frontage road, and if any conversations were had about the road it was due to questions from constituents he represents and Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall takes responsibility for the decision on the frontage road, citing it was a misunderstanding on what the safest solution would be, a new road or a J-turn.
To add insult to injury for MDOT and Jim Hood’s office, Governor Phil Bryant jumped in the political fray this afternoon with the following tweet.
— Phil Bryant (@PhilBryantMS) July 26, 2018
Clearly the initial fact pattern underlying the original Clarion Ledger story has eroded pretty substantially. What started out as an implied potential political scandal that looked to have 2019 election implications seems to have fizzled to this point under even the slightest amount of scrutiny.