MDOT official says he was forced to retire

The man responsible for overseeing Mississippi’s highway construction projects says he was forced to retire by Mississippi Department of Transportation Executive Director Butch Brown.

Harry Lee James, 54, who was chief engineer/deputy executive director, had worked for MDOT for more than 26 years. The Stack, which links I-55, I-20 and U.S. 49, and the rebuilding of the U.S. 90 bridge on the Mississippi Gulf Coast after it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina are among the projects using his expertise.

He was promoted to chief engineer in 2003. In late 2003, he served as interim executive director of MDOT.

James said he wasn’t given a reason when Brown told him to clean out his office by the end of the day last Friday.

“It was totally unexpected,” James said by telephone from his Canton home.

Brown said James is still an employee with MDOT, but MDOT’s Web site has replaced James’ picture and bio. Melinda McGrath is listed as the interim chief engineer/deputy executive director.

James said he put in for retirement effective only after Brown fired him. He said he had no plans to retire.

Though James served at the will and pleasure of the executive director, forcing him out”was a real dumb thing to do,” Central District Commissioner Dick Hall said. “You can’t afford to lose people like that.”

Hall said he doesn’t know the impact James’ departure will have on current projects, but it will be felt in the future.

“He had an awesome responsibility,” Hall said. “His firing is just another thing that helps destroy the credibility of MDOT.”

But Brown said Hall, with whom he has had an ongoing battle over the years, “is a very unhappy man and he is very good at finding things to criticize at MDOT and, as I’ve told him many times before, if he is so unhappy at MDOT, why doesn’t he leave MDOT?”

Butch Brown and Hall have butted heads before over the executive director’s firing of an employee. Then-MDOT employee Shirley Rutland was fired by Butch Brown in February 2004 but reinstated by the Mississippi Appeals Board. A Hinds County Circuit judge, the Mississippi Court of Appeals and ultimately the state Supreme Court upheld the reinstatement of Rutland, who is now retired, with back pay.

James’ duties had included organizing, directing and coordinating planning and design of all construction and maintenance projects. Other projects he had worked on included a proposed Airport Parkway toll road to connect downtown Jackson with Jackson-Evers International Airport.He was MDOT’s bridge engineer until he was promoted to the top engineering position.

Clarion Ledger