New samples law more good news for existing, future breweries

May 31st, 2012 No comments

This week’s issue of the Mississippi Business Journal has a story in it about Crooked Letter Brewery, whose owners hope to be up and running this fall.

The Jackson County brewery would be Mississippi’s second, joining Hancock County’s Lazy Magnolia Brewing Co. (The Keg and Barrel in Hattiesburg is a brewpub, the only of its kind in the state.)

Crooked Letter CEO Wanda Blacksmith and her husband Paul, the brewery’s GM, said they had planned to open a brewery before Raise Your Pints and others were successful in their push to reform Mississippi’s beer laws. The Blacksmiths did say, though, that the new laws that raised beer’s alcohol content and allowed breweries to exceed that limit in beer sold out-of-state would help.

Crooked Letter got another bonus last Thursday, when Gov. Phil Bryant signed a bill that allows breweries to offer samples to customers who tour their facility. It was yet another piece of the craft beer crowd’s legislative agenda. It didn’t make the Crooked Letter story, because the news of Bryant’s signature didn’t arrive until the MBJ’s printing presses were running.

The samples, according to the law, have to be made by the brewery offering them, and cannot exceed six ounces. No one person can have more than six at a time. The samples have to be consumed on the brewery’s premises, and can only be offered between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. Obviously, the law requires that tasters be at least 21 years old.

Breweries also have to maintain records of how many and what kind of samples they offered, though there doesn’t seem to be any language that requires auditing of those records by a state agency.

Like the other new statutes, the brewery samples bill takes effect July 1.

 

Former Miss. Power CEO Topazi retiring from Southern Company

May 29th, 2012 No comments

Southern Co.’s latest 8k filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission contains news about former Mississippi Power Co. CEO Anthony Topazi.

Topazi, according to documents filed May 25, will retire as Southern Co.’s  executive vice president and COO effective Aug. 1.

Topazi left Mississippi Power in 2010 for its parent company. He was CEO when MPC gained PSC approval for the Kemper County coal plant. The plant is scheduled for completion in 2014, assuming the Sierra Club’s latest legal challenges are unsuccessful.

Southern Co. documents spell out a consulting agreement the company reached with Topazi. After his Aug. 1 retirement, Topazi will earn $1.7 million for consulting services rendered between then and Dec. 31, 2013, when the agreement expires.

To view the six-page filing click here.

Supreme Court deals Hood another bad loss with fees rulings

May 24th, 2012 1 comment

Attorney General Jim Hood’s recent run of bad luck with the Mississippi Supreme Court continued Thursday afternoon.

The court ruled against Hood in separate fees cases related to litigation involving MCI and Microsoft.

In both instances, the court found that the law requires that any outside counsel Hood hires must be paid from his contingent fund or from other funds the Legislature appropriates to his office. Both the MCI and Microsoft cases, the court said in a split decision with partial dissents and concurrences in each opinion, failed to meet that standard.

Auditor Stacey Pickering had sued to reroute the fees payments for outside counsel through the legislative appropriations process.

This is a big win for Pickering, and yet another bad loss for Hood right on the heels of the Supreme Court ruling against him on the pardons issue.

The links to Thursday’s opinions are here and here.

UPDATE: Pickering and Gov. Phil Bryant have issued statements. Pickering’s provides a lot of background, but here’s the pertinent part:

“The Supreme Court agreed that the Mississippi Statute uses the mandatory term ‘shall,’ and we view this mandate as declaratory that all fees paid through contingency fee contracts are public funds and must be appropriated by the Mississippi Legislature. These rulings today are a victory for open government and transparency as well as for the taxpayers of Mississippi.

“These opinions set a clear precedent in Mississippi ensuring that the purse strings of the State of Mississippi are to be controlled by the Mississippi Legislature. These funds are public funds, subject not only to control by the Legislature but also subject to audit by the State Auditor’s Office. I appreciate my predecessor Governor Bryant for his leadership on this issue when it began in 2007, and I am overwhelming pleased with today’s action by the Mississippi Supreme Court.”

And here’s what Bryant, who Pickering noted initiated the original litigation, had to say:

“The money attorneys received for pursuing the MCI case on behalf of the state is public funds, something I have long believed and fought for. The State Supreme Court’s ruling is a welcome sign as we open up this age old process of hiring outside counsel and then paying them excessive amounts of money, in this case $14 million. 

While serving as State Auditor we published a report which looked into the process of paying attorney fees. The report clearly states the Attorney General did not have the authority to enter into such an agreement, because he may only pay private attorneys out of contingency funds in his budget or from other funds appropriated to the office of the Attorney General by the Legislature. I appreciate the work of State Auditor Stacey Pickering in the recovery of these public funds.”

I have a message into Hood’s spokesperson. If/when I get a response, I’ll post it.

SECOND UPDATE: Hood’s statement, in its entirety:

“These opinions by the Supreme Court simply give us direction on how to pay the attorneys that worked on these cases and in future cases. 

“We will implement and follow the law created by the Court.  In this ruling, the Court does not call into question the “validity of the Retention agreement” or the right to the attorneys being paid.  It simply says that the lawyers in these cases could not be paid directly from the defendants, and that money must flow through a state account first. In fact, the Court reiterated the Attorney General’s ability to hire good lawyers to bring important suits on behalf of Mississippi, such as with these cases. 

“The defendants made a claim in Circuit Court that they had negotiated a fee that was $3 million less than that to which they were entitled under the uncontested terms of the contract. On remand, the state will be exposed to payment of that additional $3 million.”

 

Ready to Run seeks to put more women on the ballot

May 21st, 2012 No comments

Mississippi is one of only two states to never elect a female member of its congressional delegation.

That was one of the anecdotes Lydia Quarles and Pam Johnson presented Monday at the lunch meeting of the Stennis Capitol Corps. The two were going over the details of Ready to Run Mississippi, an initiative designed to get more women to seek public office.

“When women are in decision-making positions, quality of life improves for everyone,” said Johnson, who works in issues advocacy for several nonprofit organizations. According to an index maintained by the United Nations, women make up 81 percent of the healthcare workforce in the U .S.; the same index says that women outnumber men 3-1 in education jobs.

Yet out of the country’s 100 largest cities, only 12 have female mayors, said Quarles. And only 90 of the 535 total members of Congress are women, she added.

“Women should be on the front lines for good education and quality healthcare,” said Quarles, a policy analyst for the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University.

Quarles and Johnson each said Mississippi’s progress for women in the political arena has been uneven. While two of the state’s eight statewide elected officials are women – treasurer Lynn Fitch and agriculture and commerce commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith – only 15 percent of the Legislature is women. That’s up from 14 percent.

“Women should have an equal say,” Johnson said. “Men don’t have to be asked and trained to run for office. Women do.”

Ready to Run Mississippi will hold a two-day event June 22-23 with the aim of getting more women on the ballot. To register – men are allowed to attend – go to www.sig.msstate.edu.

Vicksburg marks anniversary of historical river crest

May 18th, 2012 No comments

VICKSBURG – It was a period of numerical reflection Friday morning here on the banks of the Mississippi River.

It was exactly one year ago that the Mississippi crested at 57.1 feet, breaking the record set in 1927 (56.2 feet) and cementing the 2011 flood as modern history’s highwater mark.

Just west of the flood wall, where city and federal officials held a ceremony marking the one-year anniversary of the crest, the water flowed at 26 feet, some 30 feet lower than it was one year ago.

“What a difference one year can make,” said Col. Jeffrey Eckstein of the Vicksburg District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Eckstein estimated the Mississippi River and Tributaries system, the seven-state network of mainline and backwater levees, prevented $110 billion worth of damage as it held back last year’s flood waters that submerged nearly 10 million acres. Since it was completed in the late 1920s, Eckstein said, the MR&T has prevented $490 billion in damage as annual springtime floods came and went.

Total investment in the MR&T in that period, Eckstein said, is $14 billion.

That amount grew last December by $802 million when Congress appropriated funds for repair to the MR&T.

Peter Nimrod, chief engineer of the Corps at Vicksburg, said the primary problem areas in Mississippi were sandboils at Buck Chute near Eagle Lake and the backwater levee in the South Delta, which required buttressing before flood waters came within four inches of overtopping it.

“This was the first real test for the MR&T, and it passed with flying colors,” Nimrod said.  Of the 12 total problem areas, he added, 11 will have permanent solutions in place by 2014.

Thirty-five miles of mainline levee still need raising, as does portions of the backwater levee, which is especially critical because it risks decertification if not. That would mean stagnate construction along the berm, according to economic development groups in the Delta.

Bill Seratt, executive director of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, said tourism numbers this year compared to last are “off the charts,” but there was one small caveat: Those figures were somewhat skewed by the months-long maintenance and repair of neighboring Claiborne County’s Entergy Grand Gulf Nuclear Station. At least some of the 3,000 or so workers brought in to work on the plant were staying in hotels in Vicksburg. “We’re still handing over the biggest (sales) tax checks we’ve ever given to the city, but Grand Gulf is responsible for at least some of that, though we’re not sure exactly how much.”

What is indisputable, Seratt said, is that large groups aren’t cancelling events like they did last year.  “After the crest last year, it was almost like a magic act,” Seratt said. “Poof, everybody who had come to witness history was gone, and they didn’t come back. And the people who didn’t come to see history were scared to death by the national media because they made it sound like the whole town was underwater. We begged them to show shots from the bluff. They didn’t, and we suffered.”

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Supreme Court denies Hood’s motion to rehear pardons case

May 17th, 2012 No comments

The Mississippi Supreme Court has denied Attorney General Jim Hood’s motion asking justices to reconsider their decison to uphold the pardons of former Gov. Haley Barbour.

The Court, split 6-3, ruled in early March that it had no jurisdiction to review Barbour’s decision, because doing so would violate separation of powers.

The vote denying Hood’s motion for rehearing was 8-1. Justice Bubba Pierce, of Leakesville, was the lone vote to rehear the case. Such motions are rarely granted.

I’ve left a message with Hood’s spokesperson. It’s likely he’ll have a reaction to this at some point this afternoon. If/when he does, I’ll post it.

UPDATE: Hood has released a statement. Here it is, verbatim:

“It is a shame that former Governor Barbour abused the pardon power.  It is even more of a travesty that a majority of the present Mississippi Supreme Court chose not to enforce the clear language in our State Constitution.  The people will have to enforce the law by going through the initiative process to amend our Constitution to prevent this abuse of the pardon power and this travesty of justice from ever happening again.  I pray no person becomes a victim of any of these pardoned criminals.”

David Rae Morris falls short of fundraising goal for Yazoo documentary

May 15th, 2012 No comments

I’ve written recently about the success a few Mississippi small businesses and artists have had with online fundraising tools like Kickstarter.

Not all campaigns are as successful as those, though, and one example of that comes from a documentary David Rae Morris, Willie’s boy, wanted to do about Yazoo City. “Yazoo Revisited” would have examined via interviews with people who were there — including former Gov. Haley Barbour — the racial and social dynamics of Yazoo City during the second half of the 20th Century. School integration would have been a big part of it.

Morris reached less than half of his $15,000 goal before his deadline. That’s a shame, and I hope he gains the money he needs to tell this story, because it’s one worth telling.

For a preview of what he’s already done, click here.

Hinds Judge Weill orders Eaton to produce all Peters/DeLaughter documents

May 11th, 2012 No comments

The litigation involving Jackson-based Eaton Aerospace and a competitor the company sued for allegedly stealing trade secrets got even more interesting Thursday.

First, a little background: Several years ago, Eaton sued North Carolina-based Frisby Aerospace, claiming some of Eaton’s trade secrets had been acquired via  former employees who had taken jobs at Frisby.

In early 2011, former Hinds County Circuit Judge Swan Yerger dismissed the case, ruling that Eaton had hired former Hinds County DA Ed Peters to improperly influence then-Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter, who at one time presided over the case. Peters and DeLaughter were also caught up in the Scruggs judicial bribery scandal. Peters received immunity from prosecutors in the Scruggs investigation. DeLaughter did not, and served 18 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice. He was released in April 2011.

After DeLaughter left the circuit bench, Yerger presided over the case until his retirement in 2011. Current Hinds Circuit Judge Jeff Weill has presided ever since.

An order Weill issued Thursday found that documents Eaton produced last month should have been produced in 2008. Weill also ordered Eaton to produce, within seven days, basically every document Eaton has that is related to the Peters/DeLaughter matter.

Weill also ordered a number of Eaton employees – including CEO Alexander Cutler – and the company’s in-house and outside counsel to provide sworn affidavits that outline why the documents produced last month were previously withheld, and to explain why any documents produced as the result of the order were withheld.

The entire seven-page order can be read here.

Miss. Farm Bureau files motion to intervene in water quality lawsuit

May 10th, 2012 No comments

The Mississippi Farm Bureau joined 13 sister state organizations earlier this week in filing a motion to intervene in Gulf Restoration Network, et al. v. Jackson, et al.

Gulf Restoration is asking the Environmental Protection Agency to either adopt uniform nutrient water quality standards for all U.S. waters or to adopt similar measures for states in the Mississippi River Basin. The suit is filed in federal court in Louisiana.

The Clean Water Act allows states to choose whether to use narrative or numeric standards to determine water quality. Most states in the Mississippi River Basin employ the narrative method, which calls for “no nutrients at levels that cause a harmful imbalance of aquatic populations,” meaning water quality should be such that it doesn’t lead to the demise of one species or another.

What Gulf Restoration wants is for the EPA to force states – if not every state, at least those that border the river – to adopt the numeric standards, which would set hard and fast limits on nutrients.

The American Farm Bureau Federation and the 14 state organizations claim such a move would prove costly for farmers. Numeric standards, they say, could impose stringent limits on runoff to bodies of water that drain into the Mississippi River. In Mississippi, that’s nearly every body of water west of Interstate 55, and a lot east of 55.

“Setting appropriate numeric nutrient standards is a complex and difficult scientific undertaking and EPA has proven it is not up to the task,” AFBF President Bob Stallman said in a press release. “Farmers have no reason to believe that EPA could establish scientifically defensible standards for any one state, much less for 40 percent of the U.S. land mass.”

The purpose of the proposed intervention is to clarify the limited circumstances within the Clean Water Act that allow the EPA to set water quality standards that override those already set in place by a state government. Stallman said the AFBF opposes a “top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.”

Joining Mississippi in filing the motion to intervene were Farm Bureaus in Arkansas; Illinois; Iowa; Kansas; Kentucky; Louisiana; Minnesota; Mississippi; Missouri; Nebraska; Oklahoma; South Dakota; Tennessee; and Wyoming.

Hosemann responds to DOJ employee who called Miss. “disgusting and shameful”

May 8th, 2012 3 comments

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann would like the Department of Justice employee who called Mississippi’s pursuit of a voter ID statute “disgusting and shameful” removed from any involvement in the state’s application to implement the new law.

Stefanie Gyamfi, who works in DOJ’s Voting Rights Division, made the comments on Facebook. Hosemann said at a press conference Tuesday morning that he became aware of them last week.

“I’m tired of people who don’t live in Mississippi stereotyping us,” Hosemann said.

Federal law requires a state seeking approval from DOJ on matters like the implementation of a voter ID law be treated with impartiality, something Hosemann said he’s afraid “isn’t happening here.”

Mississippi’s voter ID law must meet Section 5 of 1965’s Voting Rights Act. That section requires preclearance of any new voting law in states of covered jurisdiction. DOJ has recently rejected voter ID applications from South Carolina and Texas. Hosemann said Mississippi crafted its bill with that in mind. For example, he said, Texas and South Carolina’s law did not provide free IDs to anybody who needed one. Mississippi’s does.

Mississippi’s application process has already started. Attorney General Jim Hood submitted the preliminary paperwork in January, and DOJ responded in March. The next big step will come after Gov. Phil Bryant signs the bill enacting voter ID, which was passed this session in response to last fall’s ballot initiative. The bill will be made a part of the state’s application.

If Hosemann is convinced strongly enough that Mississippi won’t get a fair shake from DOJ, litigating the state’s application in front of a three-judge panel of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia is an option. Hosemann said he’s already considering doing that.