Federal grand jury indicts ex-Miss. USDA official

Published 1:33 pm Wednesday, October 1, 2008

A federal grand jury has indicted Nick Walters, a former Mississippi USDA rural development director, for allegedly having a personal interest in an agency loan he was pursuing for Natchez Regional Medical Center and for lying to federal officials about it.

The three-count felony indictment alleges Walters worked to get a U.S. Department of Agriculture loan for the publicly owned hospital at the same he had accepted a job with a company that was representing the hospital on the loan application.

The USDA rural development director in each state is appointed by the White House. Walters, now 41, left the USDA post on Aug. 4, 2006, to go into investment banking.

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Calls to Walters’ office on Monday got a recording saying the number had been disconnected. His office in downtown Jackson was locked and the lights were off. A phone message left at his home in Ridgeland was not immediately returned.

Walters’ attorney, Andy Taggart of Madison, said in a statement Monday the charges “arise out of allegations that he did not properly separate out his role in his official capacity from his role in the private sector once he left government service.”

“As his legal team, we want to convey Nick’s commitment to demonstrating that he is innocent of these charges. Nick has spent his career serving others and has earned a good name and reputation in the state of Mississippi. His time at USDA Rural Development was marked by great accomplishment, in particular during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“Because the case is an ongoing matter, though, we have advised Nick to make no comments on the case himself,” Taggart said.

The indictment, handed down last Tuesday, alleges Walters violated a federal law that prohibits a former government employee from switching sides and representing a private party in a matter in which he participated “personally and substantially” while working for the government.

The indictment also accuses Walters of violating a federal law that prohibits an officer or employee from taking part as a government official in any matter in which he has a financial interest.

Finally, the government contends Walters lied when he told a senior USDA official that he was leaving his job and going to work in private business and had no interest in Natchez Regional Medical Center, when he had, in fact, signed an employment contract with Kidwell and Co., an investment banking company with offices in Brentwood, Tenn., and Jackson, Miss.

The indictment alleges the incidents occurred between Aug. 4., 2006, and September 2006.

The indictment did not provide details of the hospital loan.

However, hospital attorney Walter Brown of Natchez said Monday that the hospital was seeking $10.8 million for capital improvements.

“We did not get the loan. I’m not sure what the reason was,” Brown said.

A message left at Kidwell’s Tennessee office was not immediately returned.

Walters held the USDA rural development job for 5-1/2 years.

The Office of Rural Development operates a range of programs, including affordable housing, water system upgrades and economic development. The agency also awards grants and provides loan assistance to local governments and nonprofit organizations for police and fire protection, hospitals and health clinics, libraries and other public uses.

Before taking the USDA job, Walters had a consulting firm in Jackson. He also was a former chief of staff at the Mississippi Public Service Commission.

Walters was the Republican nominee for Mississippi secretary of state in 1999, losing to Democratic incumbent Eric Clark.

Walters worked in the political campaigns of various Republican candidates, including former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, former Gov. Kirk Fordice and former U.S. Rep. Roger Wicker, who’s now in the Senate.

Since leaving the USDA, Walters has been working with the cities of Forest and Newton on getting financing for new hospitals.