UPDATE: MDOT's Brown grilled during confirmation hearing

mmnewsom@sunherald.comMay 5, 2009 

— Lawmakers peppered Mississippi Department of Transportation Executive Director Larry L. Butch Brown with a series of questions about his travels, his agencies expenses and his management style at his reconfirmation hearing at the Capitol.

Members of the Mississippi Senate Highways and Transportation Committee are deciding whether MDOT should keep the controversial Brown, who has been criticized for his department's spending and what some see as heavy-handedness in dealing with communities across the state. The committee will meet tomorrow to vote on the nomination. If the 19-member committee approves the nomination, it will go to the full Senate and likely be voted on Thursday.

Committee Chair Sen. Tom King, R-Petal, said at the beginning of the meeting that a background check on Brown would be released to the public. But some senators objected during the hearing, saying that they are rarely ever released. King said he would wait until Wednesday to decide, but was leaning against it since he believed a majority of the committee opposed it.

Sens. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, Merle Flowers, R-Southaven and the committee's Vice Chairman Lee Yancey, R-Brandon lead much of the tougher questioning of Brown. Flowers asked him whether MDOT had a lobbyist on staff, but Brown said two people on staff had "out of an abundance of caution" registered as lobbyists, but they were not lobbyists. He said they were "ombudsmen" but not a lobbyists. But Flowers said Brown has previously testified before the Legislature that that one of those people was a lobbyist working for MDOT.

Yancy compared Brown to the character "Pigpen" from Charlie Brown cartoons, saying wherever he something was stirred up.

Despite the issues raised about his travels and other expenses, Brown said he didn't believe there was any reason for him not to be confirmed.

King said he has received letters in support of Brown's confirmation from Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway as well as some others. There were also several letters against Brown's confirmation. Sen. Tommy Gollott, R-Biloxi, said he was going to support Brown's reconfirmation because he said Brown and MDOT deserved a lot of credit for rebuilding the roads and bridges in South Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina.

"South Mississippi has really prospered," Gollott said. "We appreciate you and we appreciate your leadership."

The official has been criticized for his agency’s spending and what some see as his heavy handedness and observers expected a large crowd, but there were a good number of empty seats in the large committee room early in the meeting. Many in the crowd were road builders, equipment salesmen and others. The meeting was held on the same day as municipal elections across the state.

A series of Sun Herald articles earlier this year revealed Brown and the state’s three Transportation Commissioners had spent $207,000 on travel, including numerous trips abroad and to resorts. Brown spent $80,000 of the total with he and others taking multiple trips out of the country. The stories also showed that Brown and the commissioners took trips to tourist destinations and stayed in luxury hotels on trips that were funded by the road building industry, which the officials regulate.

Brown has been criticized for spending on a helicopter for MDOT and also what some see as MDOT’s ignoring the input of communities and local leaders on road projects, and faced questions about it Tuesday. They said it costs about $30,000 per year to operate the helicopter.

The Sun Herald follows this story both in print and online editions.

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