Defendant in Miss. beef plant case pleads guilty

Published 5:11 pm Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A businessman whose company helped build a beef plant that went bust pleaded guilty Monday to charges that he illegally gave money to an elected official.

Robert Moultrie, chairman and chief executive of The Facility Group of Smyrna, Ga., entered the plea to “knowingly and unlawfully rewarding an agent of the government of the state of Mississippi with a gratuity,” before Chief Judge Michael P. Mills in U.S. District Court.

Moultrie admitted giving $25,000 to an elected official “to influence and reward the public official” after the state hired the company in 2003 to help design and manage construction of the Mississippi Beef Processors plant in Oakland.

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The 140,000-square-foot facility closed in 2004, just three months after it opened, putting nearly 400 people out of work. Mississippi taxpayers were stuck with $55 million in state-backed loans.

Tom Freeland, an attorney for Moultrie, confirmed in a statement late Monday that his client had pleaded guilty to paying “an illegal gratuity to a state official by a campaign contribution.”

Moultrie faces up to 34 months in prison and a fine of up to $30,000.

Freeland said all other charges against The Facility Group and those against Moultrie in relation to the plant contract are to be dismissed.

Two other company executives — Nixon Cawood Jr. and Charles Morehead — were charged with Moultrie in a 16-count indictment in June. They allegedly submitted invoices for work not performed, inflated prices for the company and gave corrupt campaign donations to a Mississippi government official.

The official was not charged with a crime and was not named in the indictment. The events outlined in the indictment, however, correspond to the dates of fundraisers that Facility executives held in 2003 for Ronnie Musgrove, who was seeking a second term as governor at the time. Musgrove, a Democrat, is now running for U.S. Senate. Musgrove has said he’s done nothing wrong.

Trial has been set for Aug. 25.

Richard Hall, a Tennessee businessman who owned the plant, is serving eight years for his role in the plant’s failure. He admitted keeping $751,000 in public and corporate funds for himself during the debacle.

Sean Carothers, whose company built the beef plant, pleaded guilty in 2007 to paying kickbacks to Hall and was sentenced to 21 months in prison. He’s apparently prepared to testify against Moultrie and the others.