Three days after the Jackson Free Press broke the story last week about four default judgments against mayoral candidate Jonathan Lee (now it's apparently up to five), The Clarion-Ledger followed up with a story in its Saturday edition that disputed Lee's account of when he stepped down as president of Mississippi Products Inc.
In an interview with the Jackson Free Press Wednesday (full audio here), Lee stated more than once that he resigned as president of the company in late December 2011. He said that his mother has been fully responsible for what has happened at the company since then. He also said that an annual report filed Oct. 8, 2012 with the secretary of state's office was inaccurate because he had not been president or actively involved with the company since 2011 because he ran full-time for mayor throughout 2012.
After the interview, the JFP examined all the documents on file for the company with the secretary of state and discovered no evidence that would prove Lee was no longer president of the company when all the default judgments were ruled against the business--which meant that the company did not answer the complaints by the four companies or send attorneys to court proceedings. That is, they didn't show up to defend themselves, the documents show.
Lee resigned as the registered agent (not the same as resigning as president) a week after the first default judgment in December 2011, and then his mother signed up as the agent Oct. 25, 2012, after several of the judgments were filed. She hand-wrote onto that document that she was "president," but there are no documents showing that Lee had relinquished the position and the secretary of state still shows no president for the company as of this writing.
In its article, and as we also reported, The Clarion-Ledger stated as fact that Jonathan Lee was still president as of October 2012—the exact opposite of what Lee assured the JFP was the case. Lee has refused to provide any documents showing if and when he stepped down as president of Mississippi Products. He also shocked the JFP editorial board by admitting that he has never owned any of the company, although he has run for office as a business owner and told the JFP as recently as last summer that he is a "a small business owner, (and) a black business owner."
The most bizarre part of all the revelations about Lee in the last week is why he tried to disavow that he was running the company when the default judgments hit. He put the blame squarely on his mother in our interview, even as he and later his supporters tried to assure the public that neither he or his company did anything wrong and that, even though they can't explain why, the judgments are not what they seem to be.
If that is the case, why did Lee float a story that he resigned as president in direct contrast to what secretary of state files show? And why did he throw his mother under the bus for what he is characterizing as a non-story? Why not stand next to her and accept full responsibility for a business problem (especially one that isn't supposed to be all that bad) instead of put out extremely conflicting information?
The whole arc makes no sense to us. Perhaps the strangest part about The Clarion-Ledger article is that the only actual news in it that JFP and WJTV had not already reported was that they managed to connect an email containing links to the public default-judgment information to attorney Sam Begley, who is a Johnson supporter who says he is not part of the campaign staff. Lee supporters seem to think that the Begley revelation makes everything OK for their candidate—ignoring the fact that Lee has put out false information about both owning the business as well as when he stepped down as president, if he actually did (which we have seen no evidence of, to date, and he refuses to provide it). And as far as we can tell, Begley has said nothing false about the claims filed against Mississippi Products. It's all checked out so far, and it's straight out of public records available to anyone.
The next day, a Clarion-Ledger editor, Sam Hall, wrote in his column that Lee has "has been the target of repeated mailings from rival campaigns," but did not reveal what campaigns are doing it. Hall told me Sunday via Twitter that the Ledger had gotten information on different candidates from different campaigns, but will not reveal the sources of those, as opposed to the Begley email, because the information went straight to them rather than was forwarded from someone else. Hmmm.
This journalistic reasoning is extremely flawed, and only gives fuel to Lee supporters who are wanting to deflect attention away from their candidate's dishonesty that has emerged in the last week. It is not illegal, or even unethical, for anyone to provide tips about public information to a media outlet, and campaigns constantly do it as do their supporters. It's the media's job to sort through it for what's important and, well, report it. It doesn't matter who the messenger is if it's true, and anyone who obsesses over that is usually trying to hide facts.
In fact, the JFP broke a story about candidate Regina Quinn's campaign/filings weeks ago because Jonathan Lee's campaign manager Tyrone Hendrix told us about it. It was true, real information, and media use story tips like these every day. A campaign sending info on another campaign is "news" only if it's false. That tip was no different from Begley's email—except that we actually know that Lee's campaign did it.
The Lee lawsuits, and especially the way he has handled them, is a very important story, no matter what his supporters say. We don't know who sent the documents in the mail to us, but we are glad they did so that we have the chance to get out information that is vital to the public interest. And that includes whether a candidate is willing to lie and blame his mother to protect his candidacy.
The public has the right to know more than Lee has told us so far about these lawsuits; he is running for mayor based on his business prowess. He won't even reveal the company's attorney, which we've never heard of, and he won't say who the contractor is who supposedly refused to pay for the goods he is in default over.
(A source has told us that it is a government agency based in Jackson, which makes sense because Mississippi Products gets government contracts based on their status as a minority- and veteran-owned company, according to Fedvendor.com. It shows that Mississippi Products' and Lee's local government contractors include the VA Medical Center and UMMC. UMMC confirmed today that it works with Mississippi Products Inc.)
The irony, of course, is that while The Clarion-Ledger seemed to go out of it's way to avoid the facts regarding Mississippi Products, it actually helped build the case about Lee's apparent dishonesty about when he stepped down as president of the company. I guess it's no wonder that his supporters are doing everything possible to change the subject and blame the messenger. It won't work.
This story matters. Honesty matters.
Oh, and by the way, Sam Begley today openly emailed to the JFP, Clarion-Ledger and a local blogger with information about another lawsuit being brought against Mississippi Products for non-payment, bringing the total that we know to five. We are posting the complaint with the others in our original story.
Finally, here's an oddity I just found when I was Googling to get the URL for Sam Hall's Ledger column. I have no idea: