Jackson County's Big Hill Acres development - environmental scandal, or abuse of justice?

Barbour, Bryant and Rand Paul taking sides

jphampton@sunherald.comJune 20, 2013 

It's supper time in Big Hill Acres.

Seaman Road is buzzing with folks heading home from work. A man and child walk a dog on Ridgeland Road. Horses graze on a front lawn. Baby pigs scamper around a pen.

Hard to believe Big Hill Acres, a short drive northeast from Ocean Springs, is ground zero in a criminal case that for years has reverberated all the way to Washington. And now the case has ties to the state Department of Marine Resources, one of the agencies responsible for protecting our coastal environment.

There's not much remarkable about Big Hill Acres. There are no fancy signs like some of the swankier subdivisions in the area -- just the occasional 'keep out' warning on a tree or fence. Most of the large lots have mobile homes on them, a few of them obviously abandoned and in disrepair. For the most part, though, it's a quiet place of well-kept lawns and solitude.

Yet Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., knows about it. He took up the cause of Robert Lucas, his daughter Robbie Wrigley and engineer M.E. Thompson -- all of whom went to prison over Big Hill Acres. That development was either the biggest environmental scam in Coast history, which some who purchased Big Hill Acres homes say left them in the middle of pollution with property they feared was becoming worthless, or one of the biggest miscarriages of justice several GOP heavyweights have seen in some time.

And a few years before Paul's book came out in 2012, some of Mississippi's heaviest hitters came to their aid.

Then-Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann and Gov. Haley Barbour all wrote letters seeking clemency for the three people in prison, according to their offices.

Paul noted as much in "Government Bullies: How Everyday Americans are Being Harassed, Abused, and Imprisoned by the Feds."

"Robbie Wrigley and her father, Robert Lucas, were wrongly prosecuted in pre

cisely the tyrannical manner the Founding Fathers once feared our federal government could become capable of," Paul wrote in the book published in September.

Mick Bullock, press secretary to now-Gov. Bryant, confirmed Bryant wrote a letter when he was lieutenant governor.

"I checked with the governor and as we recall, based on the information that was presented, it looked to be the worst case of abuse of power by the EPA and federal prosecutors," Bullock said in an email. He didn't answer a couple of other questions: The governor is not known for intervening in criminal cases -- what was different about this case? Is Robert Lucas a friend or something?

Request for clemency

The law firm where Barbour works confirmed he wrote a letter but said it couldn't find a copy of it.

Rebekah Staples, a government relations adviser at Butler Snow in Jackson, said she spoke to the attorney there who advised then-Gov. Barbour on the case.

"The letter requested President (George W.) Bush commute the sentence of this individual, I think her name was Robbie," Staples said. "She played no real part in any of the violations, that she had an infant son, was an ideal candidate for clemency, had given back to her community, was a teacher then went back to nursing school …. We were asking for clemency for all these reasons but also Robbie was sentenced for Clean Water Act violations and she had a lengthy sentence and was supposed to be serving jail time but the majority of folks sentenced in related cases under the Clean Water Act usually received probation. So it seemed particularly egregious that this person who didn't really have anything to do with it would receive such a harsh sentence."

Hosemann didn't respond to requests for comment.

Paul even said the late Dunn Lampton, a former federal prosecutor, had had a change of heart and backed clemency.

However, at the time of the sentencing, Lampton called the sentencing a "landmark" in the prosecution of environmental crimes.

"The tireless efforts of the investigators who put this case together are to be commended," Lampton said in a news release issued by the Department of Justice at the time of the sentencing in 2005. "Today's landmark sentence is a direct result of their hard work and dedication."

Paul said Lampton later would be instrumental in getting Wrigley out of prison early.

"He felt that Robbie's sentence was too hard and by the grace of God, he found his sense of compassion and used an arcane rule to have her released," Paul wrote.

Paul didn't respond to two email requests for comment on the book, nor did he reveal how he learned about the case or whether he had any connection to the Lucas family.

The DMR connection

Kelly Lynn Lucas, hired in May to the newly created chief science officer position at the DMR, was a property manager 10 years ago at her father Robert Lucas' Consolidated Investments in Lucedale, which at the time was in the middle of a long-running dispute over Big Hill Acres. She said in an interview in May her job had nothing to do with that development.

A few years after she left, her father, sister and an engineer who worked for the company were sent to prison and his company was fined more than $5 million.

But if those who sought clemency on the Lucases' behalf didn't know them beforehand, how and why did they get involved?

Wyatt Emmerich, president of Emmerich Newspapers and publisher of the Northside Sun in Jackson, thinks he knows.

"There was a local businessman who took an interest in this case. He's an oil guy so he's just up on this kind of stuff because he deals with the EPA and permits and all that," he said. "And he turned me on to it."

The oil guy, John McGowan of Jackson, wrote a column about the case and what he said were the shortcomings of the government's prosecution, avoiding the inflammatory language that often surrounded the dispute. Emmerich then took up the cause, and his series of columns comes to conclusions similar to those in Paul's book.

"I think we got the governor to write something and some other stuff," he said.

Robbie Wrigley was freed in 2010 but her father, who is 73, likely will be in prison until 2015, according to the Bureau of Prisons. He's at the Federal Prison Camp in Montgomery, Ala. The Sun Herald could not obtain contact information for Wrigley, who has said she does not want to comment because it could hamper efforts to get her father out of prison.

'I'm a scientist'

Kelly Lucas stayed with her father's company just a year, and by the time the indictments were handed down, she said, she was at Mississippi State University. Land development, she said when interviewed, wasn't her thing.

"I'm a scientist, I'm not a land developer, so I don't know that much about that side of things," she said. "I was always the kid outside playing with the critters and stuff.

"But I certainly know that there are rules and regulations and stuff that have to be followed, and (as DMR chief science officer) I'm going to make sure every rule and regulation is followed."

Jamie Miller, Kelly Lucas' new boss, said the Big Hill Acres case was fully vetted before she was hired.

"I personally interviewed her, the governor interviewed her because she was one of the candidates for this position (executive director) and I felt confident leaving that interview that what had happened on her father's watch had nothing to do with her," he said. "I can tell you honestly, I had a long conversation about it and she answered every question and I have complete confidence in her ability as a scientist and I wasn't going to let something that she had nothing to do with keep her from helping us."

She was a teen in 1994 when Robert Lucas began buying land that would become a 2,600-acre development between Jim Ramsay and Seaman roads in western Jackson County. Mobile homes were put on large lots and marketed to low- to moderate-income families.

According to court records, the problem in the government's eyes was most of the land was wetlands, unsuitable for development. And, the government said, that saturated land certainly could not support the septic tanks installed to treat sewage.

In 2000, several hundred people met at Vancleave High School to talk about their land in Big Hill Acres, land they feared was becoming increasingly polluted and worthless.

Angela Adams, a mother of three, said she was worried about her kids drinking and bathing in possibly contaminated water.

"What about my children now?" she asked. "How long do I have to wait until this is fixed?"

Robert Lucas was at the meeting but left after the crowd started yelling at him to come to the stage and answer questions.

The case against the three was outlined in numerous government documents and filings.

According to the indictment, the Army Corps of Engineers warned Robert Lucas in 1996 the wetlands he owned couldn't be subdivided and developed without a permit from the corps, a warning he ignored. Later that year, the state Health Department rescinded approval of more than 100 septic tanks because, it said, the property had been incorrectly evaluated and was not suitable for septic tanks. Robert Lucas agreed to let the Health Department re-evaluate the land. It found more than half the lots weren't suitable for septic tanks.

M.E. Thompson Jr. of D'Iberville, the engineer who designed the septic systems, had similar problems with systems he designed in Gulf Park Estates and Ocean Beach, the indictment says.

Warnings, warnings

The government's case said Thompson received repeated warnings the systems he designed could contaminate drinking water in the area. In 1997, the Health Department sued Thompson. Robbie Wrigley responded by going to the Health Department and telling an employee there to stop interfering with Thompson.

In 1998, Robert Lucas and his employees began building roads and draining lots. "Two acres - High & Dry land, well septic & power pole" read one ad Lucas placed, according to prosecutors.

Numerous warnings from the corps followed. In 1999, it issued a cease-and-desist order. The Lucases and Thompson were undeterred, the prosecution said.

In 2004, a federal grand jury indicted all three, accusing them of a scheme to defraud people who leased, rented or bought Big Hill Acres homes and to violate the Clean Water Act. On Feb. 25, 2005, the three were convicted on all 41 counts by a federal jury that deliberated just a few hours. On Dec. 6, 2005, Robert Lucas was sentenced to nine years, Robbie Wrigley and Thompson to 87 months. They were fined $15,000 each. Big Hill Acres Inc. was fined $4.8 million and Consolidated Investments was fined $500,000.

Granta Y. Nakayama was the EPA's assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance when the case was prosecuted. Nakayama said, "The defendants destroyed valuable wetlands and victimized the residents of Big Hill Acres. This sentence sends a convincing message that those who knowingly violate environmental laws and place the public health and welfare at risk will pay a very heavy price."

Kelly Lucas is measured when talking about her family's travails.

"My sister lives in Ocean Springs with her family and I think that's about it," she said. "Life moves on."

Today in Big Hill

In Big Hill Acres, life is about to move on in a big way. Work has begun on a $20 million water and sewer system paid for by taxpayers. In all, about 800 customers will be served by the system, most of them in Big Hill Acres.

The Jackson County Utility Authority was created through the post-Katrina Gulf Coast Regional Utility Act and gets most of its money from Community Development Block Grants. The Big Hills project, nearing the end of the bidding process, is one of the authority's biggest, Executive Director Tommy Fairfield said. The Corps of Engineers is providing some of the funding; the authority is providing the rest.

The Lucas family is providing easements on all but 13 of the properties for the lines and the authority secured the rest, which will keep the lines out of the road, he said. A U.S. Department of Agriculture loan will be used to connect the homes to the system.

"Over the years, the citizens will pay it back," Fairfield said. "We're not heavily burdened with debt anyway … the charges will remain very competitive within the county."

The federal court where Robert Lucas, Wrigley and Thompson were prosecuted has signed off on the project, Fairfield said.

The Corps of Engineers is evaluating the bids, contracts could be awarded this summer and construction could begin by the end of summer, he said.

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