Guess who has a helicopter? Yep, it’s MDOT

Suppose a state agency spent half a million dollars on a helicopter and didn’t ask the Legislature?

That’s what Jackson Mayor Frank Melton said happened during his tenure as director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics.

Melton said in an e-mail after reading my last column on the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s ill-advised plan to spend big bucks renovating the agency’s boardroom and executive suite: “MDOT attempted to purchase our (MBN’s) helicopter, but they only wanted to do it after the Legislature left out of session. I refused the deal and took the position that I would only sell the chopper with the approval of the Legislature.

“Well, guess what? I get sent on vacation and MDOT buys the chopper from MBN. This is the kind of crap that goes on in government using the taxpayer money. I am finding this same crap in Jackson city government,” Melton said.

Did Legislature approve?

A state helicopter formerly operated by the MBN was sold for $530,781 last September to MDOT.

At the time of the sale, MBN Director George Phillips told the press that selling the helicopter – a 2001 Eurocopter EC120B with room for a pilot and four passengers – saved his agency more than $388,000 a year. One would assume that MDOT assumed at least that much in operating fees. Question is, did the Legislature approve the purchase of the helicopter or operating funds?

Central District Transportation Commission Dick Hall said Tuesday that he was “not aware of any legislative authority being granted to MDOT for the purchase of the helicopter.”

“I have no idea why the helicopter was purchased or what it’s being used for,” Hall said. “I know that it’s parked out at Hawkins Field. I know that MDOT has a pilot hired to fly it. I’ve been told it’s been used to fly (MDOT executive director) Butch Brown back and forth to Natchez.”

But Brown responded: “That helicopter has never been used to fly me to Natchez and if Dick said that, then he’s just a liar, a pure and simple liar.”

Brown defends purchase

Brown said legislative approval of the purchase of the helicopter “wasn’t necessary” because it was purchased with proceeds from a $1.6 million MDOT Law Enforcement Division drug seizure.

“I guess Frank’s forgotten, but MBN made the initial contact with us, asking us to purchase the helicopter,” said Brown. “Dick Hall also knows the helicopter is used for MDOT fuel tax evasion enforcement efforts.”

Brown said MDOT monitors out-of-state fuel transfers into the state that seek to avoid state fuel taxes. MDOT also has responsibility for state oversight of Mississippi’s airports.

Brown said MDOT’s purchase of the helicopter was made with “the governor’s (Gov. Haley Barbour’s) knowledge” and that the helicopter was available for use by the governor’s office and other state agencies, including MBN.

State Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, said he knew of the purchase of the helicopter back in 2004, but learned of it after the fact. “I don’t recall the Legislature being asked for approval of that expenditure,” Flaggs said.

Bad, very bad political blood between Brown and Hall is a given. Hall and former Northern District Commissioner Zack Stewart voted to terminate Brown in November, 2003.

But Bill Minor of Holly Springs succeeded Stewart in 2004. Southern District Commissioner Wayne Brown of Lucedale voted with Minor to retain Butch Brown in January, 2004.

So, MDOT now has a nice helicopter of dubious necessity. Meanwhile, state public school teachers are buying their students’ school supplies out of their own purses and wallets. Go figure . . .

Sid Salter
Clarion Ledger
8/18/5