With the cloud of an impeachment inquiry and questions about his calls with foreign leaders hanging overhead, President Donald Trump began October by endorsing another embattled Republican who is also embroiled in allegations of scandal: Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who is the GOP nominee for governor in this November's statewide elections.
"Mississippi, there is a VERY important election for Governor on November 5th. I need you to Get Out and Vote for our Great Republican nominee, @TateReeves," Trump tweeted on Oct. 2. "Tate is strong on Crime, tough on Illegal Immigration, and will protect your Second Amendment."
Trump stands accused of holding up $391 million in congressionally appropriated aid to Ukraine, which is daily under threat from Russia, in exchange for a political favor. Official White House partial transcripts corroborate a whistleblower's claim that Trump asked Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky to do him "a favor" by launching an investigation of potential Democratic 2020 opponent Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, and their business dealings in Ukraine. In return, Trump suggested, he would help Ukraine.
Despite the air of scandal, the Mississippi GOP celebrated Trump's endorsement in an email on Oct. 3.
"President Trump knows there is only one conservative in the race—only one conservative who will support his economy-driving agenda, only one conservative who will lead Mississippi with policy grounded in the extraordinary notions of liberty and freedom. That conservative is Tate Reeves," GOP chairman Lucien Smith wrote.
Just after the launch of the impeachment inquiry, Reeves defended Trump, writing on Twitter that "This New Democrat(ic) Party is out of control and truly dangerous."
Hood Ad: Reeves 'Used Political Pressure' for Road Project
Like Trump, Reeves has faced an official inquiry and fought to stave off allegations of corruption in recent months. Last month, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, who is Reeves' Democratic opponent, released the results of an investigation that seems to corroborate claims, which The Clarion-Ledger first reported in 2018, that Reeves pressured the Mississippi Department of Transportation to use $2 million in taxpayer funds to build a frontage road that would have connected his gated private community to a popular shopping center in Flowood.
With just over a month left in the campaign, Hood has begun running a TV ad highlighting the reporting in last year's Clarion-Ledger's story. The ad does not include references to the results of the attorney general's office report. It opens with a computer-generated map showing Reeves' private subdivision and how the frontage road would have connected it to the Dogwood Festival shopping mall.
"This is Tate Reeves' gated community, this a nearby shopping mall, and this a $2 million taxpayer-paid road that Reeves used political pressure to try to build," a male voice intones.
The ad switches to a clip of Reeves saying, "I had nothing to do with it."
"The Clarion-Ledger shows he did," the voice responds.
The ad then switches to a shot of Hood standing on a dirt road at his country farm. (Despite Trump's suggestion that Hood is a "liberal" who wants to take guns away, Hood is a long-time hunter and considers himself an outdoorsman).
"I built this road on my farm with horsepower and my sweat," Hood says. "Tate Reeves tried to build a road with your tax dollars to his own gated community and got caught. As governor, the roads I build won't be to a politician's driveway. They'll be to you."
The lieutenant governor, who also serves as president of the Senate and has the power to champion or kill legislation outright, drew extra scrutiny because, during the time he was allegedly pushing for the road project off of Lakeland Drive, he repeatedly blocked attempts to better fund Mississippi's infrastructure. As a result, the State was forced to close hundreds of crumbling roads and bridges in recent years due to lack of repair money.
While Reeves says the new state lottery that begins in December will help pay for road-and-bridge repairs, candidate Hood says he wants to bring back $260 million in corporate franchise taxes, which largely benefit out-of-state businesses, in order to pay for road repairs.
But on Sept. 11, Attorney General Hood released his 43-page report on the investigation's findings, which included emails that show members of Reeves' staff were asking MDOT employees about the project and pressing them to speed up its progress. In one Feb. 1, 2016, email, MDOT legislative liaison Michael Arnemann wrote to MDOT Executive Director Melinda McGrath to tell her that "the Lt. Gov. just called to ask me for an official update on ... the frontage road and exactly what has been decided on signals and access to the two subdivisions."
'Trying to Minimize Political Exposure for the Lt. Gov'
That same day, Arnemann wrote to David Foster, whom Hood's report identifies as a district engineer, to ask about "the latest ongoings on access to the two gated communities specifically related to signalization and the frontage road that has been discussed."
Hood's report also includes an Aug. 1, 2014, note from an unidentified MDOT employees' phone.
"Melinda is trying to minimize political exposure for the lt. Gov. With Lakeland project and it's (sic) reprioritization," the note reads.
McGrath told investigators with the attorney general's office that Reeves' office did indeed exert political pressure and that, when the news broke about the project, Reeves called Flowood Mayor Gary Rhoads, who was also involved in the project, and "cursed him out."
The attorney general's office notes in the report that some of its efforts were "impeded" because Reeves did not turn over requested documents. In response to a request for records of "any communications ... including but not limited to emails and text messages" related to the road project, Reeves' office responded just over a week later.
"After having conducted two independent reviews of electronic legislative communications by and between me and any members of my staff with anyone at the Department of Transportation regarding the frontage road project, and without waiving the legislative privilege that I and other Senators undisputedly have under Mississippi law, no written documents have been found that meet the criteria of your request," Reeves wrote in a July 2018 letter to Hood.
The "legislative privilege" Reeves referenced pertains to Mississippi's "sunshine" or public-records law, from which the Legislature exempted its members. Members of the Legislature also refused to turn over documents, the report says. Hood, though, was able to obtain records of some of those communications, including the ones above, through MDOT, which is not exempt from public-records laws.
Reeves Accuses Hood of 'Dirty Tricks'
Two former Mississippi Supreme Court justices reviewed the report, and offered their own opinions.
"A reasonable factfinder could review the evidence in the report and conclude that Lieutenant Governor Reeves wanted the frontage road to be built and additionally applied political pressure to that end," wrote former Justice David Chandler, who served from 2009 to 2015. "However, I do not believe any evidence in the report establishes that the Lieutenant Governor received or could have potentially received any amount of compensation for the project to an extent that liability arises under Section 109 of the Mississippi Constitution.
"With the above in mind, I will note one potential issue. According to the report, Lieutenant Governor Reeves and his spouse 'own a membership share in the Oakridge Property Owners' Association, In. (sic), (OPOA).' This shareholder membership and the actions of OPOA could potentially implicate Section 109."
Former Chief Justice Edwin Lloyd Pittman pointed to Section 109 as well, which reads that "... no public officer or member of the Legislature shall be interested, directly or indirectly, in any contract with the State, or any district, county, city or town thereof, authorized by any law passed or order made by any board of which he may be or may have been a member, during the term for which he shall have been chosen, or within one year after the expiration of such term."
Despite evidence that contradicts his earlier claims that he was not involved in discussions about the frontage-road project and that no such communications existed, Reeves continues to deny any wrongdoing. He has, instead, accused Hood of "political dirty tricks." The investigation began before either Hood or Reeves began running for their respective parties' nominations.
The Reeves campaign has not responded to repeated requests for comment since last month.
Last month, Hood told the Jackson Free Press that he is leaving it "up to the next attorney general" to decide whether or not to bring charges against Reeves or anyone involved. Either current Mississippi Treasurer Lynn Fitch, the Republican nominee, or former ACLU Executive Director Jennifer Riley Collins, the Democratic nominee, will replace Hood in the attorney general's office.
Though he is not seeking charges, Hood says that, as the attorney general, law required him to investigate claims that Reeves improperly exerted pressure on MDOT. Reeves, though, claims Hood is the one abusing his office—and has accused him of using taxpayer money to investigate his political rival. That charge, though, is not dissimilar to one that Democrats nationally are levying against the man whose endorsement Reeves readily accepted on Oct. 3.
Text Messages Deepen Trump's Ukraine Woes
While Reeves' legal fate may depend on the outcome of this year's statewide races, national Democrats are moving full-speed ahead with their inquiry into Trump's solicitation of help from Ukraine in investigating the Bidens. Trump also asked Zelensky to help investigate his 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton, and the origins of the Mueller investigation that looked into claims Trump colluded with Russia to win his first election.
Trump and his Republican defenders have claimed the call is not evidence of a crime because there was "no evidence of quid pro quo," but supporters of impeachment point out that it is a crime under federal law to solicit a campaign contribution—such as help with digging up dirt on an opponent—from a foreign government. But in recent days, Trump's defense, like Reeves' with the road project, got undercut when State Department employees handed over text messages to Congress.
"Are we now saying that security assistance and a meeting with the (White House for Zelensky) are conditioned on investigations?," U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor wrote to U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland on Sept. 1.
"Call me," Sondland responded.
Then, eight days later, Taylor sent another text.
"As I said on the phone, I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign," Taylor wrote.
Again, Sondland rebuffs him, writing that he suggests "we stop the back and forth by text" and telling Taylor he should call someone at the State Department if still has "concerns."
Several text messages corroborate Taylor's concerns, including one U.S. Special Ambassador to Ukraine Kurt Volker sent to Zelensky presidential adviser Andrey Yermak that, "assuming Presidnt Z convinces Trump he will investigate/'get to the bottom of what happened' in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington." Volker sent that message on the morning of July 25—just hours before Trump's call with Zelensky.
Volker works for lobbying firm Barbour, Griffith & Rogers, BGR Group, which former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, started in the 1990s before his run for governor. In an Oct. 2 report, Jackson Free Press editor Donna Ladd and investigative fellow Nick Judin explored the complex web of connections between BGR, Ukraine, former Republican U.S. Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, Trump's circle and key figures caught up in the Ukraine scandal.
Reeves Getting Help from Barbour, Bush
Reeves accepted Barbour's endorsement at the GOP headquarters in Jackson last month, and appeared alongside Barbour and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to discuss "workforce training and education" in Tupelo on Oct. 2. There is no indication that Reeves' involvement with Barbour extends to the former governor's international lobbying work.
Later this month, Bush will hold a high-dollar GOP fundraiser for Reeves in Belden, Miss. For years, Bush and his organization, Excellence in Education, have been pushing for so-called "school choice" initiatives in Mississippi. Reeves has made good on Bush's agenda by successfully pushing through laws establishing charter schools in the state and setting up a taxpayer-funded private-school voucher program.
Last year, Trump paid two visits to Mississippi in October and November to campaign for Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith. So far, no plans have been announced for a visit on Reeves' behalf. Democratic leaders in Congress say they want to wrap up the impeachment inquiry by the end of the year.
If a majority of the Democratic-controlled House does vote to impeach Trump, the U.S. Senate would then have to decide whether to convict and remove him from office or acquit him. That would require a two-thirds vote for the GOP-dominated upper chamber.
Elections on Nov. 5
In Mississippi, meanwhile, the voter registration deadline for the Nov. 5 election is Oct. 7. Voters must turn in their registration forms in person by 5 p.m. that day; applicants will also be eligible to vote in November if their ballot is postmarked by Oct. 7. To cast a ballot, voters must bring a state-accepted form of photo ID.
Voters will also choose new leaders in the races for attorney general, lieutenant governor, treasurer, secretary of state, and other statewide offices on that day. All Mississippi House and Senate races will also be on the ballot.
More information on voting, voter registration and voter ID is available on the secretary of state's website at sos.ms.gov.
Follow State Reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Send tips to [email protected]. Read more about statewide elections at jacksonfreepress.com/2019elections.