Mississippi officials attack suggestions in a recent news story that politics rather than merit put Flora among six finalists for a $451 million federal biological research lab.

Officials in Gov. Haley Barbour’s administration say the Associated Press story could doom Flora’s chances of winning the competition.

“Some are trying to use the media to damage Mississippi’s application,” Mississippi Development Authority Executive Director Gray Swoope said in a statement.

The AP reported that the Flora site beat out locations in other states for the finalists list even though they got higher ratings in a report from a panel of federal researchers vetting the sites for the Homeland Security Department.

Homeland Security officials would not release the report and would not confirm details of the AP story, which ran a week ago.

The story noted Mississippi is home to “powerful U.S. lawmakers with sway over the agency,” referring to Republican Sen. Thad Cochran and Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, which oversees that agency.

“It is no secret that Mississippi’s entire congressional delegation is supporting this project,” Swoope said. “Mississippi ought not to be criticized for having one of the most unified, bipartisan and supportive congressional delegations in the nation.”

A section of the federal government report AP agreed to share with Gannett News Service shows the Flora Industrial Park was rated 72 for research capabilities, 75 for the quality of its workforce, 93 for community acceptance and 93 for construction issues.

Because the research score was weighted as most important, Flora’s final score was 81, lower than all but two of the 17 candidates, according to the document the AP provided in an e-mail. Sites in Oklahoma and Kentucky received final scores of 77.

Homeland Security officials rejected sites in California, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, Texas and Wisconsin, even though they received scores higher than the Flora site, according to the report from the federal panel.

Mississippi officials deny knowledge of any ratings. If a site did receive a low rating, it probably was one in Brandon that Homeland Security officials had rejected, according to Melissa Medley, a spokeswoman for MDA, and Duane O’Neill, president of the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership and head of a consortium that promoted the Flora site.

“We’re unsure that the rating even exists,” Medley said. “We got no numbers.”

Clarion Ledger