I usually shy away from conspiracy theories.

When the Democrats and their attorneys began claiming last year that the Bush administration was using its prosecutorial might to target opposition candidates and their major financial supporters, I greeted the allegation with a skeptical eye.

I’m not so sure anymore.

This past week’s developments in the four-year-old investigation into the failed Mississippi Beef Processors plant seem timed to help derail Democrat Ronnie Musgrove’s bid to snatch one of the state’s two U.S. Senate seats from Republican hands.

Three Georgia businessmen, one by one over the course of four days, entered guilty pleas to federal charges arising out of the Yalobusha County beef plant’s quick and costly demise.

The three, all executives with The Facility Group of Smyrna, Ga., were largely left off the hook on the more serious charges that they had swindled the state out of at least $2 million and had left the plant’s vendors and contractors holding the bag.

Instead, they were allowed in a plea bargain to confess to trying to buy influence with Musgrove by steering $25,000 to the then-governor’s unsuccessful re-election campaign in 2003.

The orchestrated guilty pleas — and the prosecutors’ suggestion that more indictments could be forthcoming — are a boon to the campaign of Republican Roger Wicker, who was appointed to the vacant Senate seat in December but is considered vulnerable. They leave a cloud over Musgrove in voters’ minds and provide more fodder for negative campaign ads from the GOP camp, even though Musgrove has not been charged with any wrongdoing and there’s nothing in the court records to document he did anything illegal.

Some of what The Facility Group did in helping Musgrove’s 2003 gubernatorial campaign is copied by businesses all the time. Corporations routinely form PACs as a way to skirt the $1,000 contribution limit on corporations, and they give money to candidates in hopes of securing access and favorable treatment. If the feds were to prosecute every political donor who had a state contract, they could fill up all of the federal courtrooms in Mississippi with defendants.

What the Facility Group did that was blatantly illegal, according to the original indictment, was how it got the company employees to pony up for Musgrove. The corporation’s executives allegedly asked employees to write $1,000 personal checks to the Musgrove campaign and then reimbursed them with enough bonus in their paychecks to cover the contribution, thus concealing that the money actually came from The Facility Group.

There’s no evidence, however, that Musgrove was aware of the scheme.

And as far as The Facility Group winning the $3.5 million contract in 2003 to manage the design and construction of the troubled plant, the indictment hints that Musgrove may have steered away another interested bidder, but it is thin on proof.

Musgrove, though, was at most a minor player in the mess.

Yet the efforts to link him publicly to the corruption scandal — using the combined power of the federal prosecutors and a Republican state auditor — have intensified since Musgrove announced his intentions to challenge Wicker for the Senate seat.

The conspiracy theorists see a pattern. They cite the unrelated bribery convictions of Democratic former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman and Mississippi trial lawyer Paul Minor, a major donor to Democratic candidates, as earlier proof that political affiliation is determining who gets investigated and prosecuted by the Justice Department. That allegation is being looked at by congressional panels even while both convictions are on appeal.

As with most conspiracy theories, events don’t always fit the pattern perfectly. Richard Scruggs, Mississippi’s most famous and wealthiest trial lawyer, is now in federal prison following a separate bribery probe. Scruggs may have given more money over the years to Democrats than Republicans, but the brother-in-law of Trent Lott was also well-connected in the GOP.

Still, the federal government’s help in slandering Musgrove less than 90 days before the election has a suspicious feel to it.

Greenwood Commonwealth