Jackson businessman and Levee Board member Leland Speed is donating a portion of the property that spurred charges of an ethics violation to Mississippi College. Speed told the Jackson Free Press this morning that he is donating his interest in a family-owned property that borders the Pearl River floodplain to quell any possible concerns over his ethics.
"I have a 25 percent interest in a four-acre, flooding piece of ground, and I'm giving it to Mississippi College," Speed said of the property that is officially owned by the Catherine Speed Estate. "I don't want any question of any kind about my motives."
Speed sent a letter earlier in the week to the state Ethics Commission requesting an opinion on whether it was unethical for him to sit on the Levee Board, where he heavily lobbies for the Two Lakes development, without disclosing to the board that he owned property that could become waterfront in part, according to a recent blueprint of the Two Lakes proposal.
Speed told the Jackson Free Press today, though, that he will not pursue an opinion from the Ethics Commission now that he's giving away his share of the family estate. "I don't need to; there's no question to pose to them," Speed said. "The question is moot." Speed plans to maintain his Levee Board seat.
At Monday's meeting of the Rankin Hinds Pearl River Levee Board, Flowood Mayor Gary Rhoads suggested that Speed's stake in the property near Lakeland Drive constituted a conflict of interest. Former Levee Board member Robert Stockett stepped down from the board when it began to examine flood control because he owned property in the floodplain, Rhoads noted.
"Mr. Speed, I think that you're in the middle of an ethics violation sitting on this board and making decisions that could have personal gain for you in the future," Rhoads told Speed at the Monday meeting while waving a copy of a January Jackson Free Press that reported that Speed owned at least an acre in the Two Lakes footprint. "I think if you own property that can be benefitted by any kind of flood protection, then that's an ethics violation."
Speed replied at the meeting that he would turn over deed for the property to "the appropriate public body" if it was cause for concern.
Rhoads told the Jackson Free Press today that he was satisfied with Speed's decision to relinquish his property.
"If he doesn't own property in the project area--that was the only deal about it--I don't see a conflict," Rhoads said.
Bill Townsend, Mississippi College's vice president for advancement, confirmed that Speed had informed the college of his plans to donate the property. Speed said that he expects to finalize the transfer in time for the Levee Board's meeting on Tuesday.
Speed also denied that he was the largest financial contributor to the Two Lakes for Mississippi Foundation, a non-profit group founded in 2001 to raise money for "nonpartisan research and study of the Two Lakes Plan. Rhoads told the Jackson Free Press in January that Speed had told him that he was the largest contributor to the foundation.
"That is not (true)," Speed said today. "I don't know where that came from. I have no idea who is (the largest contributor). I don't have anything to do with the administration of that (foundation)." Speed said that he had contributed to the foundation but could not remember the amount of his contribution.
"I contribute to a lot of things in Jackson," Speed said.
The foundation's form 990 says that the foundation "helped fund the engineering, feasibility, economic and environmental studies of the Two Lake Plan." Its 2001 form 990 indicated that it initially raised close to $300,000 for the effort, and "devotes a nominal amount of time and funds ... to provide the names of public officials who may be in a position to review or adopt legislation regarding a flood plan for the Mississippi to the public."
As of its 2009 filing, the board's directors and offices were Sam Begley, Dr. Samuel White Jr., Joe Lauderdale, David Russell of McGowan Working Partners and Delbert Hoseman II. Speed's name does not appear on the forms.
Speed and Mayor Rhoads have butted heads repeatedly over Speed's support for Two Lakes and his opposition to the levees-only plan that a majority of the board approved in December. A levees-only plan would not protect downtown Jackson against the backwater flooding that could occur when creeks running through Jackson cannot empty into a flood-stage Pearl River, Speed argues. To avoid the possibility of backwater flooding, a levees-only plan would have to include costly pumps that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is unwilling to pay for, Speed said. Speed also argued that the cost of levees would fall entirely on taxpayers, while increased property values--and hence, higher property taxes for people owning land in and near the Two Lakes footprint--would help offset that project's cost.
"The levee plan has no sources of income other than taxation," Speed said today. "Two Lakes does. Two Lakes generates a dramatic cost-benefit ratio and creates all sorts of value that can be used to offset the cost and preclude taxation on the people of Rankin and Hinds Counties."
Waterfront property under the Two Lakes plan could fetch up to $2,000 per linear foot of waterfront property, Speed said today. That means that 1,000 feet of waterfront property would be worth $2 million.
Dallas Quinn, a spokesman for McGowan's company, McGowan Working Partners, gave a lower estimate of waterfront property values under a Two Lakes Plan. On the Hinds County side of the Pearl, property could reach $80,000 per acre, with an additional $800 per linear foot of waterfront, while on the Rankin County side those figures would be $60,000 per acre and $600 per linear foot of waterfront, Quinn said.
Quinn also confirmed that McGowan would be willing to donate property he owns to make Two Lakes happen.
"He'll either donate the property away and work to help build the Two Lakes, or he will invest his money in the lakes, if people want him to," Quinn said. "He'll do whatever people want him to do. Either he'll donate the property away and work for a dollar a year, or he'll donate to the project."
Quinn could not say whether McGowan would also donate property owned by family members or whether other partners in his business McGowan Working Partners, or related companies, would do the same. The Jackson Free Press reported in January that hundreds of acres in the Two Lakes footprint are now owned by McGowan family members and associates of McGowan Working Partners, individually and through LLCs such as the Meadowbrook Lakes LLC.
Additional reporting by Donna Ladd. Visit here for a full Pearl River archive.
I do wonder why Mississippi College needs 25 percent of a piece of property between Eastover and Lakeland that Mr. Speed has called worthless. Choice of donor seems odd.
So either there was a conflict due to the land, or he has another conflict that might have come up in an Ethic Commission review?
Interesting question. Does anyone know if his having given money -- he will not reveal how much -- to the Two Lakes Foundation could be considered a conflict? I have no idea.