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Lawmakers question MDA's contracts

JACKSON — Lawmakers yesterday sharply questioned the Mississippi Development Authority’s contracts with private consultants, including a $240-an-hour agreement with Terri Hudson, who used to be the agency’s chief financial officer.

Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said during a budget hearing that he doesn’t understand why MDA would pay Hudson so much for a part-time contract to help oversee spending of federal money for Hurricane Katrina recovery.

“This contract is a bit of a sore subject,” said Brown, a former state fiscal officer who is a CPA in private practice.

Brown said $240 an hour would equate to $480,000 a year if Hudson were working full-time.

MDA executive director Gray Swoope said Hudson’s salary was about $125,000 when she left in 2006. She had been the agency’s CFO since early 2004.

Swoope said MDA paid Hudson $89,000 under contract last year — not $480,000. He said her expertise is valuable as the agency manages $5.4 billion in federal Katrina money because she helped develop recovery programs and she understands the complex regulations.

Hudson was CFO of the telecommunications company SkyTel Inc. before working for MDA. Swoope said it’s critical for MDA to have someone of her caliber to check the Katrina recovery spending for housing grants and other programs.

“No disrespect to our MDA disaster recovery team because I’m proud of the work they do,” Swoope said. “But at the same time, it can be overwhelming at times and we want to be sure we have people on contract who can help us.”

Swoope appeared before the Joint Legislative Budget Committee to present MDA’s spending request for the fiscal year that begins next July 1. Lawmakers frequently use the hearings to quiz agency directors about their operations.

Rep. Diane Peranich, D-Pass Christian, asked Swoope about MDA’s advertising and public relations contract to promote the state Port of Gulfport.

MDA officials said the Gibbes Company, a communications firm with offices in Ridgeland and Gautier, has a $65,000-a-month contract worth $2.6 million.

Gibbes Company president Denton Gibbes said later yesterday that the contract is worth up to $2.3 million, ending in Dec. 2011.

“We were hired in a competitive process and have done an excellent job for our client,” Gibbes said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

Swoope said the Gibbes Company is paid to hold community meetings, handle media inquiries and operate a website touting Gulfport as “the port of the future.”

“There’s been tons of misinformation about what’s going on at the port,” Swoope told reporters after he met with legislators.

Critics, including the NAACP, have said Gov. Haley Barbour is spending millions on the port that should be spent on housing for low-income coastal residents who lost their homes in Katrina.

Peranich asked MDA officials why the Port of Gulfport still doesn’t have a freezer to accommodate Mississippi’s poultry exports. She said that five years after Katrina, longshoremen are still struggling to make a living because they can’t get work.

“You’re publicizing the port to the tune of $2 million. We just don’t have any jobs,” said Peranich.

MDA deputy director Whit Hughes said the port is not being ignored but improvements take time.

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