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Beef Plant reverb: Which side benefits from latest guilty pleas?

Former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove was the elephant in a North Mississippi federal courtroom last week, as two men who contributed heavily to his re-election campaign in 2003 pleaded guilty to providing a campaign contribution in an attempt to curry favor with a political candidate. The pleas of Robert Moultrie and Nixon Cawood, who each contributed $25,000 to Musgrove, stop short of saying the two were trying to outright bribe Musgrove.

Moultrie and Cawood were the president and the CEO of the Facility Group in Smyrna, Ga., the company the State of Mississippi hired to design and manage construction of the Mississippi Beef Processors plant in Oakland. The plant shut down three months after its opening in 2004. Two other men have pleaded guilty and been sent to prison.

Campaign issue?

But it was Cawood’s and Moultrie’s pleas that have Musgrove’s Republican opponents making political hay.

“This is further fallout from the dark years of the Musgrove administration and additional evidence of the more than questionable manner in which he operated as our state’s governor. Ronnie Musgrove’s failed policies and undesirable political deals make him unworthy of being on the ballot let alone serving in the United States Senate,” said state Republican Party chairman Brad White.

Musgrove, a Democrat, faces interim Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker in November.

Specter of Spell?

“There is nothing in the plea agreement that indicates any quid pro quo,” Musgrove spokesman Adam Bozzi said in a news release. “And whatever Robert Moultrie’s intentions were to influence future acts were misdirected — the Land, Water and Timber Resource Board was responsible for all contracts and they approved contracting with the Facility Group.”

The Land, Water and Timber Resource Board was headed by Commissioner of Agriculture Lester Spell, the Democrat-turned-Republican who is still in office. Neither Spell nor Musgrove have been accused of any wrongdoing.

Parsing the deal

Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, says Musgrove has a chance to come out of this ahead.

“If you parse the plea deal, it falls short of being a bribe,” Wiseman said. “A bribe implies quid pro quo. This stops short of that.

“That’s a net gain for Musgrove. He can say that (federal authorities) combed through every inch of this thing and didn’t find anything specifically on him.”

Nevertheless, Wiseman added, expect Wicker to use this in some fashion in his campaign. So far, Wicker has used a theme of fiscal irresponsibility on Musgrove’s part during his time as governor as his main political jackhammer. As far how Wicker employs the Beef Plant pleas, time will tell.

“It depends on how they play this,” Wiseman said. “It may really be best for Wicker just to drop it. But he’s gotta look at it and see if there is anything he can get out of it. That’s what candidates do.”

Keeping it simple

Another issue is the complexity of the federal case that emerged after the plant’s closing.

“When it comes to matters of the legal system and money, you have to keep it pretty simple,” Wiseman said. “If you start getting too technical and start using the fancy legal language, folks’ eyes start to glaze over.

“Ultimately, I think it’s going to be harder for Wicker to say Musgrove was illegally connected to this thing than it is for Musgrove to say the case was thoroughly investigated and found nothing bad on him.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .

About Clay Chandler

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