While campaigning to be the next governor of Mississippi, Jim Hood champions transparency as a right of average voters to better understand state government.
However, as current state Attorney General, Hood apparently is content to leave some internal workings of his agency, especially his use of taxpayer-funded satellite offices, as murky at best. Especially regarding what would seem to be the least of the AG’s offices, the one in his hometown of Houston, Miss., population 3,464.
In reality, that branch in Chickasaw County could be more important than his main state office in Jackson.
The Attorney General has refused repeated requests for an interview on the topic. Public records requests seeking more detail as to the evolution of the office are pending.
“We’re not going to do this interview, but thanks for asking,” was the reply to Y’all Politics through his communications director, Margaret Ann Morgan.
This duck-and-cover attitude seems to be a contradiction to Hood’s own public comments. At a John C. Stennis Institute of Government Capitol Press Corps Forum in early February, he extolled increased transparency as needed in the state’s government.
“The working people have been kicked to the curb. They’re not in the back rooms when the deals are made …,” Hood said.
It was no secret that several years ago, Hood was unhappy living in the Jackson area. The Daily Journal quoted Hood as announcing in July 2013 he was moving home from Jackson and would be conducting most of the AG’s business from Houston, later saying “the way communications have changed and the way we do business” allows him to work from there. However, the primary rationale Hood presented was that it wouldn’t cost taxpayers a cent.
At that time, the AG already had an office in Biloxi established in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina. When Hood applied to the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration to rent a North Mississippi office, he extolled the good the Gulf Coast office has done.
He also said he would be using North Mississippi as his primary office. DFA has been forthcoming with documentation of how this happened, answering public records requests and follow-up questions within 24 hours.
“I will use the office as my regular place of work and it will be staffed with several AG Law Enforcement Investigators who will be assigned to work in that area,” Hood wrote in one document provided by DFA.
Repeated attempts by Y’all Politics to call the Houston office on various days at various times have received no answer; instead, the phone roles over the AG’s office in Jackson. State documents anticipate the number of walk-in clients per day as one. Based on our research and visit to the office, one seems generous.
Hood’s initial request was to use Houston office space owned by his father, James Hood Jr., at no cost to the state. “Some people said I needed to rent space, but why should I get the state to pay for space when I can get it for free?”. The Attorney General wrote in state documents that he himself formally used at least part of the family space as his office when he was District Attorney for the district encompassing Chickasaw County and stated it was “the best site available in Houston for security purposes.”
Yet the state rental of an office for him over the last five and a half years at substantial taxpayer expense at over $100,000 is exactly what happened.
After a tightly worded public notice was published seeking office space specifically in Houston, another property owner in Houston offered a proposal to lease at $750.00 per month, or $9,000.00 per year. Houston is about 35 minutes away from Tupelo with substantial state office space presence. The proposal for a little over 1,500 square feet in a remote retail strip next to a hair salon at 799 South Jackson Street half a mile south of downtown Houston was accepted. In addition to rent, there are expenses associated with utilities, janitorial, office communications and furnishings at substantial taxpayer expense.
The AG’s office determined that the Hood Law Office was wholly unsuitable for state office occupancy. At the time, Hood told the Daily Journal he decided against his father’s property so it would not interfere with his father’s law practice with articles in the media providing cover for the move.
In reality, according to state documents provided by DFA: “After further review of the OAG’s Security team and personnel, it was determined that the original space offered by Mr. Hood posed security risks for the OAG at that location, and it would pose further disruption to Mr. James Hood’s office.”
Hood, a Democrat, has repeatedly said he travels to Jackson as least once a week since moving back to Houston. But questions remain. If Jim Hood were not the AG, would the Attorney General’s office field an office at substantial taxpayer expense in Houston (as opposed to larger North Mississippi population centers like Tupelo or Southaven)? And if not, isn’t this just a taxpayer funded perk for him? And why was the original solicitation of the lease listed as coterminous with the end of Hood’s 2015 term? If this was a necessity and a good deal for taxpayers, why not enter a long-term lease and save taxpayers money? And exactly how much time does he spend in each office versus the fully furnished and staffed office he maintains at the Sillers building in downtown Jackson? Is the expense in fact justified?
Is turnabout fair play?
An absolute media circus ensued this past summer over questions about whether Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves exerted influence to establish an access road near his subdivision and one adjoining it, thus theoretically influencing an indirect benefit to his property values as the media narrative was suggesting. Above the fold features and massive public record chases by media outlets were in the headlines for weeks. Hood went so far as to threaten an investigation and admonished state Senators that Senate rules allegedly allowing them to keep secret some records are not a protection.
In the intervening months, there has been no concrete evidence that was presented that any untoward influence actually happened. Whether this revelation of a perk that directly benefits a statewide elected official will command the same attention from the media that was rapt with concern about the possibility of an elected official getting even an indirect taxpayer funded perk remains to be seen.
It also remains unclear whether, if elected governor, Hood and his wife would occupy the Governor’s Mansion in Jackson full-time or continue to primarily run state business from Chickasaw County.
In the meantime, he continues to propose transparency in state government as a way to cure, or at least curb, many ills. General Hood’s office has an ideal opportunity in the remaining 11 working days provided by the statute to respond with that same transparency.
“The overarching issue here is that the legislative leaders should not hide behind their rules to keep their bosses, the voters, from knowing who influences legislation,” Hood was quoted by the Clarion-Ledger. “Legislators should be subject to the Open Records Act just like every state, county and municipal elected official.”
From his lips to God’s ears.
Y’all Politics will continue to pursue this story and will report the findings of the various public records requests pending as well as any comments on the matter from the AG’s office.