Politics & Government

Why a former justice is uniquely qualified to consider ethics of Tate Reeves’ road controversy

Edwin Lloyd Pittman is among a handful of Mississippians to have served in elected office in all three branches of state government — judicial, legislative and executive.

He also is one of two retired justices on the Mississippi Supreme asked by Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood to review the report his office conducted on the $2 million frontage road that was planned to provide easier access to busy state Highway 25 in Rankin County from Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ gated neighborhood.

Hood released the report Wednesday.

The issue came to the forefront last summer when media reports surfaced, first in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, of accusations that Reeves and/or staff members were applying pressure for the road to be constructed even though internal documents from the Mississippi Department of Transportation indicate that the project was not needed for safety concerns.

When asked if the issues surrounding the frontage road, based on the Hood report, led him to believe Reeves violated Section 109 (the ethics clause) of the state Constitution, Pittman said it was a close call.

“It is an issue that needs to be considered,” he said. “I don’t know if it is an issue that needs to prosecuted, but it needs to be considered.”

Whether you agree with him or not, Pittman, now 84 and long ago retired from his last position in state government as chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, is uniquely qualified to comment on the frontage road controversy.

As attorney general in the 1980s, Pittman filed the watershed case that established the modern guidelines for how Section 109 is interpreted. In a nutshell Section 109 is designed to prevent public officials from profiting from their public service.

It is the reason why state Sen. Hillman Frazier, D-Jackson, had to give up his teaching job at Jackson State University in the 1980s. Frazier could not serve in the body that funded Jackson State — the Legislature — and work for Jackson State at the same time.

Important fact — no one said Frazier was doing anything illegal or even unethical. It is just that a high bar exists because of the way Section 109 is written and interpreted by the Supreme Court.

Pittman said that Hood was right to investigate the issue surrounding the frontage road. Pittman also said Hood was right to hand the information from the investigation off for possible litigation to the next attorney general — either Republican Lynn Fitch or Democrat Jennifer Riley Collins, who will be on the ballot in November to replace Hood. To further complicate this issue, Hood faces Reeves in the November general election for governor.

The Reeves campaign accuses Hood of not conducting a thorough investigation and of releasing the report close to the election for political purposes. The campaign said local officials in Rankin County touted the project for safety reasons.

“Hood’s involvement in and mishandling of the report raise serious ethical concerns about Hood’s willingness to abuse his office for his own political gain,“ the Reeves campaign said in a news release.

The AG’s report reveals emails showing that Reeves’ staff had multiple communications with the Department of Transportation about the project. Testimony indicated that some members of the Department of Transportation staff felt pressured to complete the road.

Former Supreme Court Chief Justice David Chandler, who also read the report for Hood, said in a 10 page opinion, “A reasonable factfinder could review the evidence in the report and conclude that Lt. Gov. Reeves wanted the frontage road to be built and additionally applied political pressure to that end,” Chandler wrote.

It might also be of note that Reeves’ wife was a member of the homeowner association that negotiated an agreement with the Department of Transportation on easement issues related to building the frontage road.

Does all that constitute a Section 109 violation?

Perhaps it would boil down to whether the proposed frontage road, which was mothballed after the controversy surfaced last summer, would have increased the value of the property for Reeves.

Chandler said he is not sure that the frontage road issue resulted in a Section 109 violation because he is not certain it could be proven that Reeves would receive “pecuniary benefit” if the road had been built, though he said his conclusion is not definitive.

The bottom line is that despite all the political intrigue and finger pointing, the real issue is that more than $400,000 in taxpayer funds were spent on a project that is now mothballed to build a road to make it easier for about 150 households to turn left on a busy roadway.

Whether there will be an effort to collect those funds from Reeves or anyone else will be up to the next attorney general.

This column was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture. Bobby Harrison is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.

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