Execs plead guilty to illegal Musgrove donations

Published 4:28 pm Thursday, August 14, 2008

Two businessmen involved with a failed $55 million beef plant pleaded guilty this week to illegally contributing to a past campaign by a Democrat now in a tight U.S. Senate race.

Former Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who is running for the seat vacated by Republican Trent Lott, has not been charged and says he did nothing wrong, but Republicans quickly seized the opportunity to slam him for taking the money.

Robert Moultrie and Nixon Cawood Jr., executives with The Facility Group of Smyrna, Ga., pleaded guilty to giving Musgrove an illegal $25,000 “gratuity” during his 2003 gubernatorial re-election campaign. Musgrove lost the race to Republican Haley Barbour.

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The Facility Group managed construction of Mississippi Beef Processors LLC, a cattle plant that closed just three months after it opened in 2004, costing 400 jobs and sticking Mississippi taxpayers with $55 million in state-backed loans.

Moultrie and others first raised $70,000 for Musgrove. When it became clear there were issues with the plant, according to court documents, Moultrie and Cawood talked about giving Musgrove another $25,000 to influence and reward him “should his assistance be needed on the potential problems with the project.”

Adam Bozzi, Musgrove’s campaign spokesman, said Moultrie and Cawood were “misdirected” in thinking Musgrove would — or could — help them because another state agency had control over contracts.

“I think the point here is that the plea agreement laid out Robert Moultrie’s intentions and whatever they were, they seem to be misdirected because the Mississippi Land, Water and Timber Resource Board was overseeing the project,” Bozzi said. “There’s nothing in the plea agreement that shows Musgrove’s involvement in this in any way.”

Prosecutors are recommending sentences of one year to 18 months for both Moultrie and Cawood in exchange for cooperation in the unfolding investigation, according to court records.

Documents filed in U.S. District Court in Oxford outline how Moultrie and Cawood made the corrupt campaign contributions. In pleading guilty, the men agreed to prosecutors’ outline of events:

Moultrie, Facility Group chairman and chief executive, collected about $50,000 at a July 2003 fundraiser at which Facility Group employees who gave money were reimbursed with bonuses.

After the fundraiser, Moultrie created The Facility Group Political Action Committee, which gave Musgrove’s campaign a $20,000 check.

Then, in September 2003, Musgrove contacted Moultrie for another $25,000, according to court documents. Cawood recalled that Moultrie said they had a lot ’invested’ in Musgrove, according to the documents.

It didn’t take long for Republicans to pounce after this week’s guilty pleas. Musgrove is running against Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, who moved from the U.S. House to take Lott’s Senate seat when he retired last December. The special election for the last four year’s of Lott’s term is Nov. 4.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee issued a press release calling Tuesday, when it became clear that Musgrove was the previously unnamed public official referred to in the beef plant case, “arguably Musgrove’s worst day ever.”

Brad White, chairman-elect of the Mississippi Republican Party, also slammed him in a news release, saying Musgrove had tried to foist the blame on Mississippi Land, Water and Timber Resource Board.

“Musgrove asked The Facility Group for the contributions, and Musgrove was the one who cashed Moultrie’s tainted check,” White said.