Lt. governor candidates blame each other in beef plant debacle

Published 6:04 pm Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The candidates for Mississippi lieutenant governor are pointing fingers at each other over the loss of millions of taxpayer dollars in a beef plant that operated only three months before going belly up in late 2004.

Democrat Jamie Franks says his Republican opponent Phil Bryant “botched” a state investigation into the cull cow operation in the north Mississippi town of Oakland. Bryant says Franks is engaging in “election-year theatrics.”

The public eventually lost about $55 million on Mississippi Beef Processors, including a state-backed loan, grants, consulting fees and upkeep. About 400 people were left unemployed.

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Richard N. Hall, a Tennessee businessman who was president of the plant, was scheduled to report to a federal prison Monday to start serving time for his role in the failure.

Bryant has been state auditor the past 11 years, and Franks has been a state representative the past 12 years. They face off in the Nov. 6 general election for the state’s second-highest office.

During a news conference Monday at the Capitol, Franks said: “When it became certain that criminal activity had taken place, Bryant recklessly announced his investigation in the media without alerting or cooperating with the other investigative authorities. In so doing, he demolished the potential for a criminal case that would have punished everyone responsible for the debacle and recovered millions more for the state.”

In a phone interview later, Bryant said Franks was making “irresponsible” comments about the auditor’s staff — and, by extension, about federal investigators. The auditor’s staff has worked with the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office on a task force that has investigated the beef plant failure.

“We feel very comfortable about where we’re at working with the task force and assisting the Land Water and Timber Board, as the law required us to do,” Bryant said.

Responding to questions from AP, Attorney General Jim Hood issued a written statement saying: “I will confirm that in all my years as a prosecutor, the beef plant case is the first I have seen where an investigator issues a press release that he is investigating a case the day before I am set to wire up the target to try to flip him against others. The confidential informant was burned at that point. It is hard to slip up on a criminal when a law enforcement agency announces an investigation in the newspaper.”

Bryant said the FBI issued a news release in January 2006 about the beef plant investigation.

“If I was Mr. Franks and had voted to fund the beef plant on three different occasions, I think I would just leave this issue alone,” Bryant said.

Franks acknowledged that he voted to provide public money for the beef plant, as did most members of the House and Senate. He said Bryant’s office never warned legislators about potential problems, including some that were discussed during an April 26, 2002, meeting of the Land, Water and Timber Resources Board — the state group that oversaw the beef plant.

Franks released board documents showing Bryant attended the meeting. Franks also released an auditor’s office document in which Bob Rohrlack, who was executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, discussed what was said at meeting. Rohrlack said MDA raised the point that Hall “was putting zero of his own money into the project.”

The Rohrlack statement said: “The process was slowed down until Hall was able to put up $1.5 million compared to the state’s $26 million… Hall faked an invoice to get paid $3,875 for trucking equipment to the site. MDA refused to pay that invoice.”

Hall was convicted on federal money laundering charges and state mail fraud charges, and was sentenced to eight years in each court. He will serve the sentences at the same time rather than back-to-back.

Franks said the Legislature gave Bryant’s office $50,000 in March 2003 to help the Land, Water and Timber Resources Board with its projects, including the beef plant. Franks said by the time the plant closed, the auditor’s office had spent only $10,000, and Bryant had done too little to reveal problems about the plant.

Bryant said the legislation setting aside the money was “very restrictive” about what the auditor’s office could do.