Hinds County

Jackson garners $20 million in federal legislation for water woes

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Jackson garners $20 million in federal legislation for water woes

The federal government is providing $20 million for the troubled Jackson water system in legislation that passed the U.S. House of Representatives Friday by a 230-201 margin.

The bill passed the Senate earlier this week.

The bill will avert a partial government shutdown and continue funding of the federal government through Dec. 16. will sign the legislation into law before midnight Friday when the current funding authorization expires.

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, the lone Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation, voted for the proposal while the three House Republicans – Michael Guest, Trent and Steven Palazzo — voted no. Thompson and Guest both represent portions of Jackson.

Mississippi’s two U.S. senators, Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith, both Republican, voted for the proposal when it passed their chamber.

“I support providing additional resources to help the city of Jackson address its water infrastructure needs,” Wicker said. “The $20 million included in this funding legislation would build on the initial $5 million provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers earlier this year through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. I recognize this funding will not be enough to address the long-standing water infrastructure issues in Jackson, but this is a good start.

A Wicker release went on to explain, “The 2007 Water Resources Development Act authorized $25 million for the city of Jackson’s water and wastewater infrastructure needs. This authorization was provided through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Section 219 Environmental Infrastructure Assistance Program. The city received an initial $5 million appropriation from that authorization earlier this year, which will enable the Corps of Engineers to complete projects in partnership with the city.”

Politico reported at one time Thompson was trying to incorporate into the legislation funding the government an additional $200 million for the City of Jackson. Despite the much smaller appropriation to the city, Thompson, like all congressional Democrats, voted for the proposal.

In a statement, Guest said he voted against the funding bill, known as a continuing resolution, because, “Mississippians are experiencing record high inflation.  I have and will continue to fight for legislation that restricts the size of government and addresses our national debt.

As far the $20 million in the bill for Jackson, Guest said, “I continue to be committed to working with local, state, and federal leaders to help with long-term solutions to the Jackson water system problem, but the continuing resolution did not address the situation on a long-term basis. The continuing resolution included concerning levels of spending and a risk for additional inflation that the people of our state cannot afford.”

Both the president and Gov. Tate Reeves issued emergency declarations in late August and early September when the system malfunctioned leaving no water pressure for many of the about 180,000 customers of the system. Water pressure has been restored and boil water notices that lasted for much of the summer have for the most part been lifted.

But officials say the system still faces long-term problems that some estimate will cost as much as $1 billion to fix.

The City of Jackson has committed to spend between $27 million and $34 million of the federal relief funds it received to draw down on a dollar-for-dollar basis COVID-19 relief money the state received from the federal government. also is committing about $17 million of its COVID-19 relief funds for the project.

Often, the Republican leaders of the state and the Democratic leaders of Jackson, the state’s capital and largest city, have been at odds on how to fix the water system.

Last week federal Environmental Protection Agency officials met with Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and voiced a desire to work with city officials to solve the problems with the water system. But in a letter to city officials the EPA said it is prepared to take action under federal law if “an enforceable agreement that is in the best interest of both the city and the United States” is not reached.

Lumumba has said cooperative work is under way.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Wrestler alleges Gov. Bryant cut welfare funding over politics

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Retired wrestler says GOP Gov. Phil Bryant cut welfare funding to nonprofit because of Democratic support

A former professional wrestler and defendant in the Mississippi welfare scandal is alleging that he personally witnessed Republican Gov. Phil Bryant instruct an appointee to cut welfare funding to a nonprofit because its director supported Democrat Jim Hood in the 2019 governor’s race.

The allegation that Bryant leveraged his control of welfare spending to punish a political opponent comes in a two-year-old federal court filing released Friday after Mississippi Today successfully motioned to unseal the case.

The account echoes a similar allegation Mississippi Today published just over a week ago that the same nonprofit was forced to fire Hood’s wife in order to keep receiving welfare grant funding.

Former WWE wrestler Ted “Teddy” DiBiase Jr. had received millions of federal welfare dollars to conduct various anti-poverty services for two private nonprofits when suddenly, the state allegedly pulled the program.

Federal authorities, who are attempting to seize DiBiase’s house because of his alleged role in the welfare scheme, say the Mississippi Department of Human Services “abandoned” the program and the wrestler failed to perform the work under his contracts. The federal complaint against DiBiase mirrors new federal charges that former welfare director John Davis pleaded guilty to on Thursday.

But what actually happened, DiBiase says, is that in 2019, Gov. Bryant directed Davis to discontinue the agency’s partnership with nonprofit Family Resource Center of North Mississippi because of its connection to Democrats in the state. 

Family Resource Center director Christi Webb was an outspoken supporter of her friend and then- Jim Hood, a Democrat who was running against Republican then-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves for governor in 2019. That year, the term-limited Bryant, who still oversaw the welfare agency, also worked hard on the campaign trail to get Reeves elected to the Governor’s Mansion.

FRC was one of two nonprofits that funded the wrestler. DiBiase said his program, called the “RISE” program, was then moved out from under the private nonprofits to the state agency.

“Shortly before John Davis retired in mid-2019, he indicated … that the RISE program would be taken ‘in-house’ and overseen at MDHS as opposed to being overseen by FRC or MCEC,” reads DiBiase’s Aug. 10, 2020, answer to the federal complaint for forfeiture against him. “Upon information and belief, this occurred as a result of the Governor directing John Davis to cease funding and working with FRC because FRC’s Executive Director, Christi Webb, was openly supporting Jim Hood in the race for Mississippi Governor.”

“The claimant, who witnessed Bryant give that direction to Davis, was subsequently informed by Davis that his contracts with FRC would be moved to MCEC,” the filing continued. “This did not affect Claimant’s performance under the contract.”

Former Gov. Phil Bryant, left, and welfare grant recipient and former WWE wrestler Ted “Teddy” DiBiase pose for a photo.

Teddy DiBiase made this claim in his response to a federal forfeiture complaint the U.S. Department of Justice filed against him in 2020 alleging he entered fraudulent contracts in order to obtain welfare funds. Mississippi Today motioned to unseal the case on Aug. 18. 

U.S. Magistrate Judge Keith Ball dismissed the U.S. Department of Justice’s initial complaint against Teddy DiBiase in 2021, after his lawyers successfully argued that the complaint failed to allege a , and allowed the government to enter an amended complaint in August. Teddy DiBiase argues that he completed the work the nonprofits paid him to conduct, therefore earning the money legally.

Teddy DiBiase Jr.’s allegation against Bryant adds to claims that the former governor used his power to influence welfare spending, not just to benefit political allies, but to punish a Democratic opponent.

Officials have not charged Bryant civilly or criminally.

The state prosecutor who secured a guilty plea from Davis last week said investigators have their sights set on higher level officials as the welfare probe continues.

“We’re still looking through records and text messages as we continue to move up,” District Attorney Jody Owens said after Davis’ guilty plea Thursday. “We also continue to work with the federal authorities in Washington and in Mississippi. John Davis is critical because the ladder continues to move up.”

Mississippi Today first reported a similar allegation from Webb that a local lawmaker had threatened her on Bryant’s behalf to fire Hood’s wife Debbie Hood in order to keep receiving funding from the state. Webb said she relayed the to Debbie Hood, who agreed to resign. Hood’s campaign manager Michael Rejebian said Debbie Hood confirmed the account. Webb also alleged that she eventually refused to continue paying the DiBiases, which angered Davis.

READ MORE: Welfare defendant alleges Gov. Phil Bryant used federal funds to hurt political rival

Family Resource Center’s original founder, Cathy Grace, was also running as a Democrat in 2019 for a local House seat against Republican Rep. Shane Aguirre, R-Tupelo, who worked for FRC as an accountant in charge of reviewing invoices from its partners. Aguirre told Mississippi Today he did not work on or review the DiBiase projects.

Teddy DiBiase Jr. is the son of WWE legend Ted “The Million Dollar Man” DiBiase Sr. His younger brother, Brett DiBiase, also received welfare funds and pleaded guilty to his role in the fraud scheme in 2020. Through various contracts with the men, as well as Ted DiBiase Sr.’s Christian ministry, the DiBiase family received over $5 million in welfare funds.

In the 2020 ongoing forfeiture complaint against Teddy DiBiase, federal authorities are attempting to seize his $1.5 million French-colonial lakeside home in the Madison community of Reunion, Clarion Ledger first reported. Prosecutors say he purchased the property with money obtained from the state’s welfare program — a total of over $3 million, according to the state auditor. At the time in 2020, the complaint contained details of an ongoing investigation.

Davis pleaded guilty on Sept. 22 to two federal charges — one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of — related to these payments to Teddy DiBiase. Mississippi Today identified one of the four unnamed alleged co-conspirators in the charges against Davis as Teddy DiBiase. 

Teddy DiBiase Jr. and Ted DiBiase Sr. have not publicly faced criminal charges, though they are targets of an ongoing state civil case that attempts to recoup misspent welfare funds.

All of the charges are part of a wider scandal that resulted in the misspending of $77 million in federal welfare funds. The money flowed through Family Resource Center of North Mississippi and another nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center, founded by defendant Nancy New. New, who has pleaded guilty to bribery and fraud, was a friend of Bryant’s wife.

The two nonprofits were running a statewide program called Families First for Mississippi.

Filings in the federal forfeiture case against Teddy DiBiase Jr. outline several alleged events:

June 2017: Teddy DiBiase’s company Priceless Ventures signed a contract with FRC and MCEC for $250,000 to “act as a ‘leadership training coordinator’” for Families First for Mississippi. FRC paid the retired wrestler in full on June 1, 2017, the first day of the contract period.

August 2017: FRC paid Ted DiBiase Sr. $250,000, near the beginning of a year-long contract to be a motivational speaker for Families First.

May 2018: Teddy DiBiase’s company Priceless Ventures signed a contract with FRC for $500,000. MCEC paid $500,000 on May 17, 2018. He “performed no significant work under this leadership outreach contract,” the complaint alleges, “but instead merely provided one or two training sessions — an immaterial amount of work that fell far short of what the contract required.”

July 2018: FRC paid Priceless Ventures nearly $500,000 in emergency food assistance funds on July 13, 2018, for a contract that was supposed to run from May 2018 to September 2018. “The only work DiBiase Jr. completed on this contract was to send a list of food pantry locations to FRC,” the filing alleged.

October 2018: Priceless Ventures signed a $130,000 contract with MCEC to create a personal development training program. MCEC eventually paid the company $199,500 under this contract.

December 2018: MDHS signed a $48,000 contract with Brett DiBiase to conduct training sessions on opioid addiction from December 2018 to June 2019. 

February 2019: Brett DiBiase began treatment at a luxury drug rehabilitation center in Malibu called RISE, where he would receive therapy for four months. Davis directed MCEC to make four $40,000 payments to the facility.

The federal complaint alleges that Teddy DiBiase used the money from the Family Resource Center contracts to make a more than $400,000 down payment on his Madison home. Teddy DiBiase denies the assertion that he failed to complete the work for which he was hired.

The federal complaint also uses Davis’ text messages to establish the close relationship that the government bureaucrat developed with the DiBiase family, such as Davis telling his administrative assistant that he “loves B. DIBIASE like his own child,” the amended complaint reads. Davis also pleaded guilty last week to charges related to welfare payments to Brett DiBiase and to pay for his drug rehab stint.

As Mississippi Today previously reported, Davis and Teddy DiBiase swapped Christian devotionals, traveled out of state and exercised at the gym together. Davis frequently texted the older brother, “I love you.” The welfare director flew across the country to visit Brett DiBiase while he was in drug rehab, discussed his treatment options with a specialist and called him the “son I never had.” When not together, they shared long, late-night phone calls, phone records show.

While Teddy DiBiase Jr. was never a payroll employee of the state welfare agency — only a contractor of the welfare-funded private nonprofits — he occupied one of the largest offices inside the private downtown high-rise where Davis relocated MDHS offices after he became director.

Under one of the contracts, Teddy DiBiase was supposed to accomplish several things, including meeting “the multiple needs of inner-city youth”; identifying services for “successfully linking the youth served with opportunities for self-sufficiency and independence”; providing feedback about “parents as they pursue skill-building and education that lead to better jobs”; and helping employers on “improving opportunity and outcomes in the workforce.”

Ted “Teddy” DiBiase Jr. appears in a 2019 internal Mississippi Department of Human Services video message to agency workers.

In Mississippi, nearly one in five people live in poverty. Average wages in the state, as well as the state’s workforce participation rate, are among the lowest in the nation. Teddy DiBiase’s contract illustrates both the state’s frenetic emphasis on workforce development and its disregard for whether the programs it supports actually produce the desired outcomes.

In this case, the U.S. Department of Justice contends the actions were illegal.

Davis and DiBiase Jr. entered into the workforce-related contracts, according to the federal complaint, “even though DAVIS and DIBIASE JR. knew, at the inception of the contract … that, in fact, no significant services would be performed under the contract and that the actual purpose of entering into the contract and disbursing funds under it was to enrich DIBIASE JR. by stealing and misapplying funds under the federally-funded contract.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

4 Mississippi judges tapped to help with backlog of cases

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www.wxxv25.com – Associated Press – 2022-09-26 08:08:43

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Four former circuit court judges will help handle a backlog of criminal cases that have accumulated in Mississippi’s largest county during the pandemic.

Chief Justice Mike Randolph appointed Stephen B. Simpson of , Andrew K. Howorth of Oxford, Betty W. Sanders of Greenwood and Frank G. Vollor of Vicksburg.

Administrative Office of Courts director Greg Snowden said in a release Thursday that has an urgent need to handle cases that were postponed when courtrooms were closed to prevent the…

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John Davis set to plead guilty to state, federal charges

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Former welfare director John Davis set to plead guilty to state and federal charges

Former welfare agency director John Davis is set to plead guilty on Thursday to two federal charges and 18 state counts of fraud or conspiracy related to his role in the Mississippi welfare scandal, according to separate federal and state court filings.

The new federal charges pertain to welfare funds Davis allegedly helped funnel to the companies of retired professional wrestler Ted “Teddy” DiBiase Jr., son of famed WWE wrestler Ted “The Million Dollar Man” DiBiase. Davis and Teddy DiBiase Jr. had developed a close relationship during Davis’ term as welfare director from 2016 to 2019, as Mississippi Today has reported in its investigative series “The Backchannel.”

Davis instructed two nonprofits receiving tens of millions in welfare funds from his department to pay Teddy DiBiase Jr. under what the federal court filing called “sham contracts” to deliver personal development courses to state employees and a program for inner-city youth, “regardless of whether any work had been performed and knowing that no work would ever be performed.”

Davis, who had not previously faced federal charges for his role in the welfare scandal, is the latest defendant to plead guilty and agree to aid prosecutors. In April, Nancy and Zach New pleaded guilty to state charges in the welfare case as well as to separate federal fraud charges they faced related to public school funding. The are cooperating with federal investigators, who continue to probe the welfare scheme and who else may have been involved.

The federal bill of information unsealed Wednesday, to which Davis is set to plead guilty, also describes four unnamed co-conspirators in the scheme. Based on the incorporation dates provided in the filing for the co-conspirators’ affiliated organizations or companies, Mississippi Today identified three of the alleged co-conspirators as Nancy New, director of Mississippi Community Education Center; Christi Webb, director of Family Resource Center of North Mississippi; and Teddy DiBiase Jr., owner of Priceless Ventures, LLC and Familiae Orientem, LLC.

A fourth unnamed co-conspirator, a resident of , is unidentifiable in the filing.

Davis and the three alleged co-conspirators are each facing civil charges in an ongoing Mississippi Department of Human Services is bringing in an attempt to recoup welfare money from people who received it improperly.

“As a result of the actions of DAVIS, the Co-Conspirators, and others, millions of dollars in federal safety-net funds were diverted from needy families and low-income individuals in Mississippi,” the federal filing reads.

The bill of information signals that Davis chose to waive a formal indictment and plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of , which come with maximum prison sentences of five and 10 years, respectively. The court filing does not indicate what kind of deal he received for pleading guilty.

The federal charges specifically outline four payments or contracts Family Resource Center made to Teddy DiBiase’s companies in June and August of 2018 totaling nearly $2.2 million.

Casey Lott, the attorney for Webb, who is facing civil charges but has not been charged criminally, said his client stopped making payments to Teddy DiBiase Jr. when it became clear his companies were not conducting the services.

“The DiBiase’s and their organizations contracted to provide services to needy families,” Lott said in a written statement Wednesday evening. “The problem is they didn’t hold up to their end of the bargain. And once they refused to do everything Christi asked them to do, she refused to award any additional subgrants to those organizations. This enraged John Davis. He yelled and cursed Christi and other FRC employees for not sending them money anyway. He threatened to cut their funding if Christi didn’t do what he told her to do. And when she stood her ground and did the right thing, he followed through with his threat. Christi is the only one who ever told John Davis ‘no,’ and she was punished for it. She was forced to lay hundreds of people off. Those innocent people who were providing much needed services to the North Mississippi community lost their job because Christi stood up to John Davis and did the right thing. So, to say she’s a ‘co-conspirator’ is absurd.”

Attorneys for New, Davis and Teddy DiBiase either declined to comment or could not be reached Wednesday.

Officers from the auditor’s office initially arrested Davis in February of 2020 on state charges of conspiracy, embezzlement and fraud after a roughly nine month investigation. Hinds County prosecutors accused Davis of using federal money administered by the agency he oversaw to send Ted DiBiase Sr.’s other son, Brett DiBiase, to a luxury rehab facility in Malibu. The criminal charges pertained to just a small portion of a scandal that forensic auditors eventually determined totaled misspending of at least $77 million in funds from a federal program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Brett DiBiase pleaded guilty to his role in the scandal — raking in $48,000 from the agency for work he didn’t complete while he was in treatment — in December of 2020.

In April, Davis was indicted again on 20 state charges, including nine counts of bribery, which came with a possible sentence of 150 years.

An order of dismissal filed Wednesday in the state case signals Davis plans to plead guilty to five counts of conspiracy and thirteen counts of fraud in state court Thursday after pleading guilty to federal charges. The filing indicates that Davis will spend his entire sentence in the case in federal court and avoid notoriously harsh conditions of Mississippi’s state prisons, an arrangement similar to the plea deal New received in April. New, her son Zach New, Brett DiBiase, and Mississippi Community Education Center accountant Ann McGrew have pleaded guilty but have not been sentenced.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Is regional system answer to Jackson water crisis?

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State, business leaders consider regionalization of Jackson water system. Local officials hate the idea

When the latest emergency in Jackson’s long-running water crisis hit — most of the city lost water again from a combination of broken or ill-maintained machinery and — state leaders began talking of intervention.

And one of the first ideas floated in backroom discussions was creating a “regional authority” to oversee and overhaul waterworks for Jackson and, ostensibly, other areas, particularly those surrounding areas already on the capital city’s system.

This would make sense. Regionalization and consolidation of water and sewer services has been a trend nationwide. Regionalization appears to help garner favor — and funding — from Congress and environmental agencies. Studies by experts say regional approaches allow systems to comply with stricter standards, connect unserved communities to water and sewerage and, importantly, save customers money using economies of scale for upgrades and repairs.

Jackson’s chamber of commerce has called for creation of a regional water authority. And there’s growing sentiment among many Mississippi leaders that someone other than the city of Jackson should run or help run the system. But so far, talk of a regional authority for Jackson and surrounds has gained little traction, particularly with Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and leaders in areas around Jackson.

The realpolitik is a true regional water system would be a tough sell in the Jackson Metro Area. It would appear no other cities want to be in a regional water authority with Jackson, and state leaders are unlikely to force it. A regional authority, as it stands, would more likely include only Jackson and some small systems in and be run largely by the state, with Jackson having some say, but not control over the system.

After Hurricane destroyed systems, Mississippi Gulf Coast governments formed regional water authorities and a large regional wastewater authority and it helped them pull down hundreds of millions of federal dollars to rebuild and expand. It took some doing, politically, with local governments reluctant to give up any autonomy. But ultimately then-Gov. Haley Barbour and legislative leaders sold them on the concept.

Across the country, as aging large or poorly amortized smaller systems struggle to meet regulations and finance upgrades, there’s been a realization they can’t afford it on their own. There’s power in numbers, and economies-of-scale savings for residents. Sometimes, there’s special money available for regionalization.

READ MORE: Jackson’s water system, by the numbers

Some states, such as North Carolina, incentivize consolidation. Others, such as California, force it. Kentucky has long been a leader in water system regionalization, and since the 1970s has reduced its more than 3,000 water systems to less than 800.

Some cities, such as Detroit and Harrisburg, Pa., have used regionalization to navigate water crises like Jackson’s with some success.

But for Mississippi’s capital city, the trend is going the other way — other cities or areas served by its water and sewerage have either left or are trying to. Some large institutions have dug their own wells, and others are considering it. Jackson has run regional sewage operations for Hinds, Madison and Rankin counties since 1973, but recently, West Rankin Utility Authority pulled out and has built its own new plant to serve Brandon, Flowood, Pearl, Richland and other areas.

Byram wants out

“I have concerns this thing has finally hit bottom, and we need a change, need to move on,” said Richard White, mayor of Byram, a relatively new city bordering the capital city and served by Jackson’s water system. “… We need to be dealing with development, parks and recreation, not having to worry about our water. We’re going to move forward with our own system.”

White said being on Jackson’s water system has provided nothing but frustration for residents of the fledgling city of about 13,000 people to Jackson’s south, with water outages and boil-water notices, bills for some Byram residents double those inside Jackson and reported breaks taking Jackson weeks to repair. Plus, Byram has no representation or say in how the system is run.

State Sen. David Blount, who represents parts of Jackson and Byram, said that whatever solutions are found for Jackson’s water crisis, “It is essential for me that the people of Byram have a voice.”

“After Hurricane Katrina a lot of people in Mississippi felt like we weren’t being heard in the national conversation because so much focus was on New Orleans,” Blount said. “Obviously, the people of Jackson deserve attention, but the people of Byram cannot be forgotten in this … There are people in Byram paying more than double, and getting worse service, if that’s imaginable.”

For Byram residents and businesses further than one mile outside Jackson’s city limits, the Public Service Commission sets their rates, and they are commensurate with what Jackson residents pay. But for those within one mile — a large portion of Byram’s most populated area — the Jackson City Council sets their rates.

“That 1 mile is at double (Jackson’s) rates,” White said. “I heard from one family — they have two small children — that was getting bills for $200 a month for water … Then I’ve got other people who call me all the time and say they haven’t gotten a bill in six months.”

Byram leaders have hired an engineering firm to price a buyout of Jackson’s water pipes in the city and installing new wells and tanks and petitioned the Public Service Commission for its water independence. White said that given a green light, Byram could have its own system up and running within a couple of years. Byram already has its own sewerage. He said that given Jackson’s problems in maintaining its system, Byram would be doing it a favor by peeling off.

White said joining a regional authority with Jackson would be a nonstarter for Byram and, “That may be too much government, too, creating a new group.

“We want out.”

Clinton creates regional authority, but not with Jackson

Clinton, Jackson’s neighbor to the west with a population of more than 28,000, has its own infrastructure issues.

To meet wastewater discharge regulations, the city needs to build a 19-mile, $97 million pipeline to the Big Black River by 2030, largely because Jackson and other areas are already discharging more treated (and sometimes untreated) wastewater than the Pearl River can handle.

Mayor Phil Fisher and other city leaders have been working on this issue for years. They have a concise plan and have secured about $25 million in funding “from several separate pots” so far and believe they have matters in hand. They hired a lobbyist to help secure funding from Congress. They are forming a regional authority with neighboring cities of Bolton and Raymond, who would face similar wastewater issues if left on their own.

“Congress appears to prefer an authority rather than Raymond and Bolton just feeding into Clinton,” Fisher said. “You need a coordinated effort that makes sense and answers a bigger need. From Bolton’s and Raymond’s perspective, they need an authority, they could never come up with the match for any of this, and even Clinton’s too small for that. Coming together allows us a chance to work as a group and plan, and then Congress looks at that with a lot more enthusiasm than if Raymond just showed up and said (environmental regulators) have an issue and we need money and put it together really quick.”

Fisher said he believes Clinton’s detailed, long-range planning for the project and using a regional approach will allow the project to move forward, including with help from a state infrastructure matching program.

And instead of looking at the large wastewater project as a problem, Fisher said it’s an opportunity for Clinton and surrounding areas.

“That’s going to be 19 miles one way to the Big Black, paralleling I-20,” Fisher said. “So going both ways, that’s going to be 38 miles of mostly unused land that that can be converted to residential, commercial, retail development. All it’s lacking is water and sewer. We have trucking, rail, the port in Vicksburg and if Hinds County would ever build it we’ll have air. This land along I-20 could become the largest and most valuable economic development area maybe in the Southeast.”

Fisher said at least one small rural water association has expressed interest in joining in with the authority’s sewerage and he believes others would follow suit and, “I envision one day all coming together under one water association.”

But not with Jackson.

Fisher said that, given Jackson’s water and sewage problems, it wouldn’t make sense financially or politically for Clinton to join in with its larger neighbor.

“I think I would be run out of town if I made that proposal,” Fisher said. “The only way I could see anyone joining an authority with Jackson would be if they had an equal number of votes on running it, no matter their size.”

But Fisher said it’s in Clinton’s — and the entire state’s — best interest for Jackson’s water and sewer issues to be resolved.

“Nationwide, people don’t know that Jackson and Clinton have two separate systems,” Fisher said. “… Last year, Jackson was No. 1 in murder rate per capita. People are seeing the water crisis now. It makes it difficult for surrounding cities to go out and make a good story. Jackson needs to fix its problems, quit finding excuses or finger pointing or getting up at a press conference and criticizing others.”

But Fisher, whose city has for years used a private company to manage some sewer operations but still owns the system, provided a warning to his neighboring city about full-scale privatization.

“If you sell your system, they’ll buy it, but the hook is, you get money up front and they won’t change the rates for five years, but then it’s Katy bar the door,” Fisher said. “Then, you’ll have the legislative mindset with city leaders: ‘Hey, I didn’t raise your rates, they did.’ Everybody elected will have something to hide behind, but at the end of the day the city loses control over rates.”

Jackson opposed to giving up control

At least publicly, the only common denominator idea for fixing Jackson’s water crisis mentioned by Gov. Tate Reeves, Lumumba and others is privatization, at least of operations and maintenance of Jackson water. But privatization comes with a cost, usually borne by water customers.

Studies have shown that privatization can leave residents with higher water bills, poor service and loss of control to fix problems. One study by the nonprofit Food and Water Watch recently showed investor-owned utilities typically charge 59% more for water and 63% more for sewer service than government utilities.

Nationwide, many cities that turned to privatization years ago are now ending their contracts, taking their utilities back over and partnering with neighboring communities.

Mayor Lumumba has said he has talked with a company about contracting out operations and maintenance of the system, but is adamant he doesn’t want the city to lose ownership or major control of the system. He has in the past accused state leaders of wanting to use privatization as a power and money grab against Jackson, and he said private companies don’t do work out of benevolence, but “They want to extract a profit from you.”

He has also expressed skepticism about joining a regional authority.

Some leaders and pundits have discussed an outright state takeover of the system, but legally and politically that would be arduous, and as some have pointed out, the state has no real expertise in running a water system or manpower on hand to do so. As one observer recently put it, that would be “like getting a D student to do your homework for you.”

Another option proposed has been a temporary receivership, perhaps overseen by the Public Service Commission until problems are resolved.

Jackson’s legislative delegation hasn’t endorsed a specific solution, but most share Lumumba’s opposition to the city losing ownership or control of its system.

“I was actually having a conversation at lunch today about regionalization,” Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson, said last week. “I’m not sure if that’s the best route. I’m still researching it … But that’s an issue, anyone wanting to work as a region. Didn’t Rankin County just come off of our sewer? That’s another blow, $3 million to $5 million. You’ve got Byram wanting to leave. I’m hearing the Country Club of Jackson is trying to do its own water well, and Jackson State. Honestly, the attitude of those folks out there is they don’t want anything to do with us in the first place, and the only way they would join us is if they have a majority of board members — and that would be an entire fight all over again.”

“If there is any private company brought in, I would still support the city owning it,” Bell said. “At the end of the day, if it makes sense for someone to run it under contract, that’s one thing. But just having the state take over… .”

State Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, said he’s mostly been focused on resolving the current emergency with water, and that any talk of long-range solutions “is in the very early stages.”

“Whatever we do has to be inclusive and well thought-out and very deliberate,” Horhn said. “… I lean towards the city being able to hold onto its assets, but it’s very clear it needs to outsource operations. The mayor himself has let it be known he’s been in contact with a third-party administrator”

As for creation of a regional authority to run the system, Horhn said, “All that’s above my pay grade. But I favor the city being able to retain ownership of its assets.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Jody Owens, Hinds County District Attorney, denied all gun allegations

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rssfeeds.clarionledger.com – Mississippi Clarion Ledger – 2022-09-14 20:29:15

District Attorney Jody Owens

District Attorney Jody E. Owens said reports of him pointing a gun at a man inside a woman’s apartment due to a supposed “love triangle” are not true.

Owens is accused in a Sept. 3 Mississippi State Capitol incident report of pointing a handgun at Joshua Towns of Hattiesburg who told police he was visiting his “lady friend” in her apartment on Pearl Street when Owens entered the apartment and pointed a gun at him. The incident occurred at 11:30 p.m.

The incident report was acquired by multiple media outlets.

The woman is an employee in Owens’ office.

When officers arrived,…

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Jackson water crisis: Reeves asks SBA to open loans to businesses affected

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Governor asks SBA to open loans to businesses affected by water crisis

Gov. Tate Reeves asked the U.S. Small Business Administration to open low-interest disaster loans to businesses hurt by the Jackson water crisis in a formal letter Monday. 

“Jackson businesses have been hit incredibly hard by the ongoing water crisis,” Reeves said in a statement. “They have shown their resilience and their commitment to this city throughout the years, and my administration will continue to do everything it can to support them during this difficult time.”

In his letter to the program’s director, Reeves outlined how businesses from daycares to restaurants had to shut down when they lost water pressure. Restaurants that have been open have had a major loss of customers while harboring extra expenses to buy clean water to keep their doors open. 

READ MORE: As Jackson water crisis persists, restaurateurs worry customers are scared to dine out

Some businesses also took on the costs of portable toilets when their own could not flush. Hotels, the governor mentioned, also have had a sharp decline in overnight stays. 

“Overall, with little to no running water throughout the city, businesses could not serve, clean, cool, or sanitize, forcing them to either suffer losses or temporarily shut down,” the letter says

In order to prove the county could qualify for the loan program, the governor’s office had to survey local businesses and show at least five small businesses “suffered substantial economic injury.” 

Restaurants and other affected businesses filled out paperwork about their costs and losses to Agency, giving the governor the data needed to apply to the program. 

If activated, individual businesses could receive up to $2 million in SBA loans under the disaster program to help with expenses and obligations that could have been met had the water crisis not occurred. The loan amount a business can receive will be based on its economic injury and the company’s financial needs. 

The program’s interest rate does not exceed 4%. 

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Hinds County: Federal judge again rejects request to end jail oversight

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Federal judge again rejects Hinds County request to end county jail oversight

For the second time this year, officials have asked a federal judge to lessen or end court oversight of the county jail and had their request rejected. 

U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves denied the county’s motion to stay its new injunction order – a scaled back version of the consent decree the county had since 2016, according to documents filed in the Southern District of Mississippi. 

He said violence and constitutional violations are “current and ongoing” at the jail. Reeves also mentioned a recent court monitor report that suggests the county doesn’t intend to comply with the injunction order or the previous consent decree.

“As the United States aptly put it, the court is being ‘gas-lighted,’” Reeves wrote in a Sept. 2 order. “No more.”

Continuing remedial efforts will lead to more confrontations, delays and serious harm to people detained at the jail, he said. 

Reeves put the injunction in place in April in response to the county’s request to modify the consent decree in January and after weeks of hearings in February and March. During the hearings, the county’s attorneys argued the consent decree asked too much and hindered progress. 

But months later, the same attorneys have argued the new injunction “micromanages the day-to-day operations of (the jail), and is cost prohibitive,” according to court documents. 

The county filed a request to stay the injunction in July pending an appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Reeves said under the new injunction, the county has greater control of the jail than it did with the previous order. But the county still needs to correct constitutional violations and meet minimum standards, he said. 

In July, Reeves determined federal receivership was the only way to bring the Hinds County jail into compliance and address a number of issues.  

The county pushed back against receivership during the hearings earlier in the year and in recent court filings. 

Reeves is set to appoint a receiver by Nov. 1 and choose from three candidates proposed by the U.S. Department of Justice. 

The county and DOJ have each outlined what kind of duties and responsibilities the receiver should have, but they have yet to find a balance between setting limits and giving the receiver room to do their job, according to court documents. 

“The county has shown a clear lack of urgency and competency since this action was initiated over six years ago, and there is no indication that if left to its own devices, the situation will change any time soon,” Reeves wrote in his Sept. 2 order denying a stay of the injunction.

“Detainees, who once again are persons presumed to be innocent, will continue to suffer substantial harm unless the county is held accountable,” he wrote. 

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Jackson restaurateurs worry customers are scared to dine out

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As Jackson water crisis persists, restaurateurs worry customers are scared to dine out

In order to keep his new cafe open, Ezra Brown hauls at least 100 pounds of ice into his boutique tea and coffee spot every day. 

When Brown – the owner of Fondren’s Soulé – hosts special events, his weekly ice total easily hits 1,000 pounds. 

The Iron Horse Grill’s general manager Andy Nesenson estimates the restaurant is spending up to $2,500 a week on bottled water, canned soda, ice and other water-crisis related expenses. 

The Bean, a coffee house and restaurant, invested in specialized coffee filters and bypasses the city waterline altogether. 

“People have been beat to with national headlines of dirty water,” said The Bean’s owner Kristy Buchanan. “But we businesses do not have dirty water.”

Operators across Jackson say they’re working tirelessly to provide clean water and safe food and drinks to customers during the city’s ongoing water system failures. While their costs to stay open have racked up during the ongoing crisis, the number of customers has plummeted.

“The city and the government are saying to take a shower with your mouth closed,” Nesenson said. “A lot of people are not going to want to go out to eat because they have a negative feeling like it’s not safe.” 

Paper plates and plastic cups have become commonplace in Jackson restaurants because they can be disposed of, rather than cleaned in water that will take extra time to boil. No more fountain drinks, but there is plenty of canned soda. Want a margarita? It will be made with water and ice all secured from outside the city. 

For the last two decades, Jackson businesses have dealt with boil water notices and insecurity from the troubled and aging water system. They have become pros at workarounds and water tanks. But as the crisis reached new heights last week, so have their economic concerns. 

Water pressure was restored city-wide Monday, but businesses say customers have yet to steadily return downtown. After splurging on clean water and ice for weeks, eateries are eager to make up costs. 

READ MORE: Mississippi’s full coverage of the Jackson water crisis

Ahead of the recent weekend, Nesenson said Iron Horse had one of its slowest lunch hours he’s seen in the last decade: fewer than 100 patrons over five hours. It hasn’t gotten better. 

“In our industry, that’s awful,” he said. “Downtown Jackson feels desolate.” 

Six weeks into the boil-water notice, some fear the businesses who have been dealing with Jackson’s water problems for years will finally give up.

“It’s a matter of time before some things start closing down or moving across city lines,” said Tamika E. Jenkins, the executive director of the Development Authority.

Martin Clapton, the owner of Barrelhouse, has counted 55 days his business has been with zero water from his own plumbing in the last five years. When he loses water pressure, that means no toilets. The costs of portable toilets are too much. He did that in the winter during a 16-day water outage. It wasn’t cost effective. 

He was closed for three days last week, and opened when water pressure was restored. He closed two more days this week because business was so slow. Now he’s considering closing his doors permanently. 

“The losses restaurants have incurred since COVID, it’s very hard economically to stay open,” Clapton said. “Normally we do $30,000 in sales a week. To do only $4,000 or $5,000 while all those bills are still rolling in? It’s tough.” 

Operators mostly agree people either largely don’t know Jackson is open for business or are skeptical about businesses’ water use. Some also say the extra costs of bottled water and child care while schools were closed has probably left some families without extra spending money.

Brown, a musician-turned-entrepreneur, opened his sleek new cafe in August, amid the latest boil-water notice. Inspectors said he was clear to open as long as he got all his ice from outside the city of Jackson.

That’s a tall order for a shop that serves more than half of its beverages cold. But Brown has persevered. He’s made it work. 

“But we shouldn’t have to make it work,” he said. “We don’t get paid to do that. It’s not my job. It’s my job to want to spend money in the city of Jackson, Mississippi, the right way, and already have clean water.”

His shop serves specialty tea and coffee with fancy swirls and colorful boba balls. He has bright furniture and modern decor. In just a month-and-a-half, he has hosted sold-out events with famed chef Carla Hall and Mississippi drummer Maya Kyles. 

Brown is from South Carolina originally but studied at Jackson State University. He was familiar with the city’s water woes ahead of opening his shop but did not expect the burden to be of this magnitude. 

No new business owner expects a city’s infrastructure to fail so horribly that they need to have a bucket of water next to the toilet so customers can flush. 

“We’ve gotten letters and emails from all over the world,” Brown said. “Things like ‘thank you for letting me know’ to ‘is Jackson a third-world country?’ … We want to change that. I’m here, I’m committed and I’m not going anywhere.” 

He says he wants Jackson to be the capital city Mississippi deserves. 

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann announced he’d be visiting five Jackson restaurants on Friday evening in hopes it would encourage others to the do the same. His tour will start at Johnny T’s on Farish Street in downtown Jackson and end at Sal & Mookie’s in the District at Eastover.

Visit Jackson, the city’s bureau, recently announced a grant program that will provide $500 to $2,000 grants to reimburse businesses for some of their water expenses. 

Businesses appreciate the gesture, but say the grants cover a small portion of the expenses they’ve had to front to keep their doors open. 

Pat Fontaine, the executive director at Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association, said some restaurants have reported $500 to $700 in extra costs per day related to the water crisis.

“They are also still dealing with increased labor costs and inflation’s pressure on their food costs,” Fontaine said. “This has all been diminishing their profit margins.” 

Nesenson, at Iron Horse, says his employees are struggling because fewer customers means fewer tips. 

Clapton worries some of the best parts of living in Jackson could disappear. He’s hoping the U.S. Small Business Administration will offer loans to businesses affected by the crisis – a lifeline he knows many could use right now. 

“It could really knock out some of the mom-and-pops,” he said, referring to the water crisis. “The right steps are being made, but it’s a little too late for some of us.” 

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Judge denies state auditor’s motion to dismiss defamation case by Ole Miss professor

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Judge denies state auditor’s motion to dismiss defamation case by Ole Miss professor

A Circuit Court judge has denied State Auditor Shad White’s motion to dismiss a defamation brought by University of Mississippi Professor James Thomas. 

In his January 2021 motion, White alleged he could not be sued for defamation for allegations he made that Thomas, by participating in a two-day event called a “Scholar Strike,” violated state law prohibiting public employees from striking. 

White argued that as a state executive officer, he is entitled to a legal doctrine known as “absolute immunity” – the complete protection from liability for actions committed in the course of his official duties – even though he acknowledged no Mississippi court has considered the issue. 

Judge E. Faye Peterson was not persuaded, writing that Mississippi law is clear state officers have “no absolute privilege for any and all comments,” only those made during legislative, judicial and military proceedings. 

“Hence, Shad White is not entitled to absolute immunity for any and all statements which he makes as a state governmental official,” Peterson wrote in a Sept. 2 order. “That blanket theory of immunity has not been recognized by our courts, nor does it comport with the laws of this state.” 

Peterson added that “to the continued detriment” of White’s defense, Mississippi courts have found that immunity does not extend “to fraud, malice, libel, slander, defamation or any criminal offense.” 

Peterson declined to issue a declaratory judgment just yet on whether or not Thomas’ participation in the Scholar Strike actually violated state law – a key argument in his case for defamation.

Fletcher Freeman, a spokesperson for the state auditor’s office, said White and his counsel from the ’s office will “continue defense against this case.” 

“Auditor White absolutely has a right to tell people when they misspend money, which is what Thomas’ lawsuit is about,” Freeman wrote in an email. 

The lawsuit filed in December 2020 centers on White’s claims that Thomas participated in an “illegal” work stoppage on Sept. 8 and Sept. 9, 2020, and thus violated state law. White sent Thomas a letter demanding he repay $1,912 – his salary and interest – for the two days and another letter asking the University of Mississippi chancellor to consider termination. 

READ MORE: Auditor Shad White says a professor broke state law. The professor is now suing White for defamation.

Thomas’ initial complaint alleged this was defamation in part because it was false of White to claim that the Scholar Strike was illegal.

According to state code, a strike is an action taken “for the purpose of inducing, influencing or coercing a change in the conditions, compensation, rights, privileges or obligations of public employment.” 

Thomas’ participation in the Scholar Strike was intended to highlight racism and injustice in the United States, not to change his working conditions, according to the initial complaint. 

“Shad White falsely claimed that Professor Thomas violated the law against public employee strikes when it was clear to anyone who could read that he didn’t,” said Rob McDuff, an attorney with the who is representing Thomas. 

White’s motion to dismiss argued that a declaratory judgment would be improper because “there are no ongoing legal relations between the parties to be clarified or settled.” Furthermore, it would “set a precedent inimical to the orderly and efficient disposition of Auditor demands.” 

“This will effectively create a need for expedited review (and potential defense) by the of all Auditor demands referred for non-payment, regardless of whether the Attorney General may otherwise have ultimately elected not to pursue a given claim—an inefficient use of State resources,” the motion states. 

Thomas’ lawsuit does not ask for a set amount of monetary damages and says a jury should decide in the event White is found liable. 

“If the jury says he should pay one dollar, that is fine,” the complaint says. “If the jury orders payment of more money, that is fine too.” 

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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