Hood: Frontage road evidence could have been destroyed without letter

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Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press

Attorney General Jim Hood says he sent letters to more than 50 state officials asking them to preserve any records related to a planned frontage road off Lakeland Drive from Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ neighborhood to a nearby traffic light at a shopping center in Flowood, Thursday, following an unrelated news conference in Jackson.

Attorney General Jim Hood said the “litigation hold letter” he sent Wednesday to Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, senators and other state officials would ensure emails and other correspondence related to the planned $2 million frontage road on Lakeland Drive are not destroyed.

Without the letter, Hood said legislators and the lieutenant governor are not required to preserve their records since they exempt themselves from the state’s public records laws.

Kayleigh Skinner, Mississippi Today

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, shown here in a file photo, said Thursday: “The letter is political grandstanding by an ambitious Democrat running for office. I am committed to finding out if any undue political influence by any senator or staff member was applied. …”

The frontage road project was slated to be built from two neighborhoods — Oakridge and Dogwood Place subdivisions, containing less than 150 houses — to a traffic light at a nearby shopping center to make it easier for the residents to turn left on busy Lakeland Drive. Reeves, who has denied any involvement in the decision to build the road, lives in one of the neighborhoods.

Speaking with the media on Thursday, Hood said the evidence needs to be preserved to allow “an independent investigator” to examine it. He indicated that the investigation might not be done by his office, but was vague on who else might do it. He refused to answer when a reporter asked if it might be the FBI.

Hood downplayed Reeves’ accusations that he sent the letters and started the investigation for political reasons. Hood, a Democrat, and Reeves, a Republican, are viewed as their party’s leading gubernatorial contenders in 2019.

“I am not saying anybody did anything wrong, but evidence needs to be preserved,” Hood said.

He said what is at issue is whether any public official who might have influenced the project benefited financially from the project.

“People want to know. If I don’t do it, the public will never know,” he said.

Melinda McGrath, the executive director of MDOT, said last week in a Clarion Ledger article political pressure from the Senate, where Reeves presides, led to the decision to construct the road.

On Thursday, Reeves said, “The letter (from Hood) is political grandstanding by an ambitious Democrat running for office. I am committed to finding out if any undue political influence by any senator or staff member was applied, and that is why I have asked the director of the Department of Transportation for any documentation to support her suggestion. She has not yet responded.”

The $2 million frontage road project recently was postponed by Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall following media reports about the road. While praising McGrath, Hall said he made the decision to construct the road for safety reasons and that he was not contacted by Reeves or his office about the road.

But Hall is now saying the road might not be needed. He said the recent widening of Lakeland in the area from four to six lanes actually makes it easier for residents of the two neighborhoods to turn left from their intersection because the traffic is more spread out.

On Thursday, Hood said he also sent a letter to Flowood Mayor Gary Rhoads, a proponent of the road, ordering his records to be retained and turned over to the the AG’s office. The letters ask that the information related to the frontage road be turned over by Aug. 1.

The purpose of Thursday’s news conference was to promote a national effort of the Federal Trade Commission to ensure that people give to legitimate veterans organizations. Officials with other groups involved in the news conference said it was part of a national effort and had been scheduled for months.

But Republican Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who at one point was scheduled to attend, could not because officials said he had a conflict. Other members of his office attended as did Stacey Pickering, executive director of the Mississippi Veterans Affairs Board, and Lt. Col.  Christian Patterson, director of public affairs or the Mississippi Military Department.