JACKSON — Top highway officials said they stopped letting the road-building industry pay for their trips to meetings at luxury hotels in tourist hot spots — a change lawmakers and the state’s top ethics official applaud.
Taxpayers now pick up the tab for Southern District Transportation Commissioner Wayne Brown, Central Commissioner Dick Hall and Northern Commissioner Bill Minor to go to meetings put on by the Mississippi Road Builders Association (MRBA), asphalt-paving groups and others to whom the officials award contracts.
If spouses attend, commissioners now pay that expense out of pocket.
A series of Sun Herald articles in Jan. 2009 based on travel records from 2004 through 2008 showed although Mississippi’s top four transportation officials traveled often at taxpayer expense, they also were frequently taken away with their wives to popular tourist destinations and put up in luxury hotels with tabs picked up by groups of road builders.
In exchange for the trips, the officials, and sometimes state legislators, often briefed the groups on highway issues of the day. In many cases food reimbursements to the elected officials were the only expense to taxpayers, although meals were offered at many of the functions.
Lawmakers and others raised ethics questions because the commission regulates the industry and awards state contracts. Commissioners said after the stories were published they sought legal input and the consensus was road builders shouldn’t foot the bill.
“The daylight hit it and we felt like it was better that we pay our own way,” Wayne Brown said. “I think it is important that we be there because, remember, if we can get one more contractor to bid on one more job, it would probably pay our travel expense for years.”
Minor said the contracts are awarded through a competitive process and officials have said there was nothing untoward going on. He said the rooms and airfare don’t affect the awarding of bids.
“That hasn’t got anything in the world to do with it, but people look at it that way,” Minor said. “They don’t know who paid for it. The whole group paid for it, but they think certain people paid for it and you are going to hand the contract out to them. The feds are sitting there looking at us and we have to hand out the contract to whichever one has the best bid. People don’t understand that.”
Hall said when he was a state lawmaker, no groups picked up his travel expenses and having contractors’ groups do it made him uncomfortable.
“This was something that needed to be done,” Hall said.
MDOT Executive Director Larry L. “Butch” Brown said he was unaware of the new policy. His state travel-reimbursement records don’t show he charged any trips to road builders or engineers trade group meetings to taxpayers since the change.
A set of travel records the Sun Herald recently requested, from September 2008 until March, showed trips to Destin, Fla., for separate conferences — one by the MRBA and one by the American Council of Engineering Companies. Taxpayers covered the tab, which included rooms at top-drawer resort hotels.
At one ACEC meeting in February 2009, Wayne Brown was reimbursed $385 for one night’s stay at the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City outside Washington. He also attended the Mississippi Asphalt Pavement Association meetings in Fairhope, Ala., in March 2009. Expense reports showed he paid $252.56 a night for the four nights he stayed there, with an overall tab of $1,165.
Wayne Brown, Minor and Hall attended meetings of the MRBA in Destin, Fla., paying $247 a night at the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. Wayne Brown stayed three nights, paying $866, Hall stayed three nights, paying $909, Minor stayed two nights, paying $745, for all expenses. Wayne Brown found himself at the same Sandestin hotel a couple of months later, when he spent four nights for an ACEC conference. Each night was $247, for a trip totaling $1,145.
Wayne Brown also attended an Alabama Society of Professional Land Surveyors meeting in Montgomery, Ala., in February 2009, which cost taxpayers $707.76.
Mississippi law gives leeway for state officials to take expensive gifts without disclosure.
They have to report income more than $2,500 received in one year from a business or entity, which could include gifts and travel. If an official receives that much, he cannot participate in a decision that would result in financial benefit for that entity.
Mississippi Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Hood said in 2009 he believed the rule could apply to road-building groups. He also said depending on the circumstances, benefits to the spouses of officials could be covered in state ethics laws.
Under current state ethics law, which Hood admits could use some tweaking, there is no reporting requirement for gifts less than $2,500 in a year. He said his office worked on bills to increase reporting guidelines on small gifts given to state officials, but the bill have died in the Legislature.
The transportation commissioners, who are elected, are also still allowed to take campaign contributions from members of the road-building industry. Legislative efforts to ban such donations have also failed. Those road builders usually pour thousands of dollars into the campaigns.
Hood was glad to see the commissioners adopt the new convention policy.
“I think the folks at MDOT were wise to make this policy change,” Hood said.
Lawmakers welcomed the new policy.
Senate Highways Committee Chairman Tom King, R-Petal, attended the trip to San Francisco in 2008, with the association picking up his tab for the hotel and the flight. He said the trips are necessary for the state’s transportation officials to stay informed, but agrees it’s better for the taxpayers to pick up the expense.
“You have to know what is going on,” King said.
Senate Transportation Committee Vice Chairman Lee Yancey, R-Brandon — who has been critical of MDOT’s operations in the past and was one of only a few lawmakers who voted to remove Butch Brown during Brown’s Senate reappointment process in 2009 — said the change is a good move.
“I think it’s very prudent on their part,” Yancey said. “It keeps them above suspicion.”
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