Senate refuses to comply with Hood’s request for information on frontage road project

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Senate Pro-Tem Terry Burton has sent a letter to Attorney General Jim Hood saying senators and their staff will not respond to his request for any documents related to the plan to build a frontage road from Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ neighborhood to a nearby shopping center.

Senate Pro-Tem Terry Burton

Burton, R-Newton, said the Senate would not comply even though there is “nothing to cover up.”

He added, “When we get a request like that, that is what we send to everybody. The law says we have control of our records.”

In a statement Thurday morning, Hood responded, “ I want to make clear to all senators, staff and other recipients of the litigation hold letter, dated July 18, 2018, that the Senate rules will not protect them from a court order to disclose any and all records pertaining to this civil inquiry. Anyone who refuses to disclose or destroys such evidence would be subject to contempt or other civil proceedings. If any criminal investigation caused a grand jury subpoena to be issued for these records, destruction of such evidence could be considered obstruction of justice.

“The overarching issue here is that the legislative leaders should not hide behind their rules to keep their bosses, the voters, from knowing who influences legislation. Legislators should be subject to the Open Records Act just like every state, county and municipal elected official.”

In July, in the midst of controversy over the planned $2 million frontage road to provide less than 150 households in two gated communities in Flowood in Rankin County easier access to turn left on busy Lakeland Drive, Hood instructed senators, staff, the Department of Transportation and local officials to provide to his office all written documentation related the project.

Legislators long ago exempted themselves from the state’s open meetings and open records laws. Hood said his request was “a litigation hold letter,” which he described as a legal term that would prevent legislators from relying on the public records, public meetings exemption.

Reeves, who has denied any involvement in the decision to build the road, sent a  letter to Hood in July saying investigations found no documents.

Reeves wrote, “After having conducted two independent reviews of electronic legislative communications by and between me or any members of my staff with anyone at the Department of Transportation regarding the frontage road project and without waving the legislative privilege that I and the other senators undisputedly have under Mississippi law, no written documents have been found that meet the criteria of your request.”

Burton’s letter simply cited Mississippi law and Senate rules regarding the Legislature’s exemption from the public records and open meetings law. Senate rules limit access to public records to such items as expense reports, but does not prohibit the Rules Committee where Burton presides from releasing records at its discretion.

Burton said the decision by the Rules Committee not to comply is not uncommon. Burton said the Legislature is currently in court fighting efforts to release House and Senate correspondence as part of a lawsuit filed in an attempt to block a bill that strips the city of Jackson of some of its control of the Jackson-Medgar Wiley-Evers International Airport.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood

In his statement, Hood cited state law authorizing him to pursue misspent transportation funds.

“If any money were misspent in preparation for this suspended project, then I would have a duty to file suit to recoup such state and federal funds.”

About $320,000 was spent on the frontage road project before it was halted earlier this summer.

The frontage road project was postponed by Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall after a story in the Clarion Ledger newspaper quoted sources as saying pressure from the Senate, where Reeves presides, influenced the decision of the Mississippi Department of Transportation to build the road.

In July, Hood said, “I am not saying anybody did anything wrong, but 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 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 at the time.

Reeves accused Hood of playing politics in issuing the request. The two are viewed as the leading gubernatorial candidates in 2019.