When Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves created Restart Mississippi, a commission to advise him on reopening the economy during the COVID-19 crisis, he chose 16 business leaders and corporate executives who have personally given more than $330,000 to his various political campaigns since 2008. That number more than doubles upon counting contributions from other executives at the organizations they represent and affiliated political action committees.
To better understand the financial interests at stake among those on the task force, the Mississippi Free Press examined more than 3,000 pages of campaign-finance reports from Reeves’ various committees dating back to 2008. The examination found that Restart Mississippi members, their fellow executives, and the companies and associated PACs they represent combined have contributed more than $760,000 to Reeves since 2008, when the new governor was still the state treasurer.
The commission has already endured criticism over the lack of racial diversity among its ranks, which includes just two women and three people of color. But Mississippi NAACP President Corey Wiggins told the Mississippi Free Press on Tuesday morning that, aside from just race and gender, the commission’s inclusion of so many big Reeves campaign contributors also “speaks to the lack of a worker voice.”
“If we’re talking about restarting the economy, the most important people in the economy are the workers—the essential workers going out everyday to make ends meet. And on this commission, you have people and companies with the ability to buy access and to put the interests of these corporations and wealthy individuals first, not the interests of the essential workers who are most at risk and have continued to work through this pandemic,” Wiggins said.
The NAACP leader said the governor ought to have chosen people whose decision to go to work could mean choosing “between their health and their financial livelihood” amid the COVID-19 pandemic—not wealthy business leaders and hefty campaign contributors.
“When you think about the folks who are executives, folks leading these large companies, their daily livelihood is not part of that conversation,” he said.
Reeves’ commission includes no health-care professionals who could advise on the health impacts of reopening various businesses, although the governor does say he listens to the advice of State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs. The commission includes no “mom and pop”-style small business owners. The “Restart” appointees represent businesses and industry associations that could benefit from a speedy economic reopening, including those in the hospitality, restaurant, construction, manufacturing, personal grooming, oil, and poultry industries.
‘Trusted Group’ Meetings Private
“We need Mississippians helping Mississippians. I have asked a trusted group of our state’s top business minds to do just that,” Gov. Reeves said when he announced the commission’s establishment on April 14. “Under the ‘Restart Mississippi’ umbrella, they are going to develop a series of recommendations and goals for our new economy. They will study the impact of COVID-19 on our workforce and small businesses. And they will help us recover—day by day.”
The Republican governor has declined to make the group’s meetings public, though, even as the commission’s members have been making suggestions not only about reopening the state’s economy amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but about how the governor should spend $1.25 billion in CARES Act money, a federal economic-relief program.
“They are simply going to make recommendations, and then we will make decisions based upon what we believe is in the best interest of Mississippi’s citizens,” Reeves said last month.
Reeves’ assertion of sole authority over allocation of the federal funds, with an unelected commission composed mostly of big-time campaign contributors advising him, drew a substantive rebuke from the Mississippi House and Senate last week. On Friday, with a unanimous House and only two senators opposed, the Republican-controlled Legislature reconvened early to pass legislation revoking Reeves’ authority over the funds.
“The Senate and the House will control what the money is to be spent on—whether there would be incentives, for example,” Mississippi Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, the Senate president, said last week. “Any statutory change would have to come from the Senate and the House. It can’t come from an unelected body.”
The governor could still veto the bill and try to convince one-third of members to side with him, but that could prove a heavy lift, since all but two senators in the 122-member Legislature voted to revoke his power on Friday. The Legislature, which has been suspended since mid-March because of the COVID-19 outbreak and only resumed for one day last week to pass the bill, is not set to return again until May 18. But during a press conference Monday, Reeves suggested he may seek legal remedies to nullify the bill in the body’s absence.
“It may be that there’s a deadline on Thursday to actually sign or not sign the legislation, but if they don’t come back, we’ll have to make a legal determination as to whether it’s an actual bill or not,” he said, without explaining further.
‘It’s Not Wise’
Marty Wisemann, the former director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and Economic Development, told the Mississippi Free Press Tuesday morning that the Legislature typically “jealously guards the appropriation of funds,” and he suspects some “personal animosity” is at play between Reeves and members of the Legislature. Reeves made a lot of enemies as president of the Senate during his time as lieutenant governor from 2012 until he became governor in January.
Still, it is not unusual for governors to be in charge of doling out emergency funds, the longtime Mississippi State University professor said. He also noted that this would not be the first time that a governor has chosen an elite task force to handle crisis response with little transparency.
“Whether it’s normal or not, it’s not wise,” Wiseman said. “It does not create the image of broad-based decision-making and transparency at all, and that’s probably what raised the eyebrows of legislative leadership that this was being corralled by a tightly knit club around the governor, and they were determined to break through that.”
Legislators, Wiseman said, also have incentives to guarantee that relief funds go to their constituents in the counties and towns in their districts.
“I don’t think there was a great deal of trust without any evidence on their part that Reeves was going to guarantee that the money made it to every place in the state that needed it. … You had a lot of Republicans who voted to keep their hands on the money and so forth,” he said.
Reeves’ appointments “mirror what Trump did” when the president appointed a coronavirus task force filled with contributors and people from his administration composed mostly of white men and just three medical professionals, Wisemann said.
“Certainly, that would raise a flag to legislators (in Mississippi) who felt that they had the ability to do something about it,” Wisemann said.
The professor said the debate over Restart Mississippi’s voice in the allocation of federal funds is complicated by the ongoing scandal at the Mississippi Department of Human Services. Earlier this year, State Auditor Shad White unveiled an investigation into supporters of former Gov. Phil Bryant and officials within the state government whom White’s office say conspired in an embezzlement scheme that moved millions in federal TANF funds from MDHS to personal projects.
“The environment that has evolved over just the last two days related to the DHS debacle makes one very skeptical of unilateral action on the part of the executive branch without significant legislative oversight,” Wisemann said. “Everybody in the state is asking the question, ‘This TANF money that went to the DHS, how could it be in that big (of) a mess?
“And that kind of thing has a way of bleeding into, ‘Well, we’re getting another $1.25 billion. What guarantees this is going to be spent properly?’ Even though it’s two different administrations and so forth, there are a lot of people who are sensitive to federal money coming into the state and where it goes right now.”
Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican who left office in 2012, penned an op-ed in The Clarion-Ledger last week defending Reeves. In 2005, Barbour pointed out, he had appointed a similar commission to assist him in deciding how to spend federal aid in response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster without legislative approval.
Letting the Legislature allocate the money, Barbour argued, “would be cumbersome, and thus delay and harm our state’s response” to the health and economic crises, the lobbyist wrote.
Reeves’ commission includes five members whom Barbour appointed to various committees and positions during his time in office, including Colby Lane, a member of its executive committee, who once served as Barbour’s deputy chief of staff; Jason Dean, Barbour’s former education policy adviser; John Hairston, whom Barbour picked for the Mississippi Gaming Commission and Board of Mississippi Information Technology; and Jabari Edwards, whom Barbour appointed to the Mississippi Health Trust Fund.
For the commission’s chairman, Reeves picked Sanderson Farms CEO Joe Sanderson, whose Laurel-based company is the third-largest poultry producer in the U.S. In 2005, he served on Barbour’s Hurricane Katrina recovery board.
Sanderson has donated more than $173,000 to Reeves’ campaign committees since 2008, making him easily the largest donor on the Restart Mississippi commission.
Before and after his time in the governor’s office, Barbour has worked as a Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist, advocating on behalf of various businesses and other interest groups inside and outside the United States. He also faced legal pushback over his handling of federal Katrina funds on the Gulf Coast.
Sanderson: Poultry Plants Necessary Like Health Care
Barbour’s nephew and former adviser, Henry Barbour, is a Jackson-based lobbyist who is working this year on behalf of Sanderson Farms for Joe Sanderson, the chairman of Reeves’ Restart Mississippi Commission.
Across the country, poultry plants have been a hotspot for COVID-19 outbreaks. Last week, the Clarion-Ledger reported that poultry workers have suffered outbreaks at poultry plants in Scott and Leake counties, and that most of the infected workers are Hispanic or black. Those counties, which are among those where federal immigration raids led to the arrests of hundreds of poultry plant workers last year, now have some of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the state.
Sanderson Farms has confirmed that some of its employees have tested positive for COVID-19. The company announced its first known case at its plant in McComb on March 23. In a statement at the time, Joe Sanderson said that the company was taking precautions, but that it was vital that poultry plants continue operating, comparing them to medical services.
“Like health care and pharmaceutical providers, the food supply chain is critical to ensure the wellbeing of residents of the United States and other countries, and federal government officials have encouraged food companies to continue operating,” the Reeves donor and Restart Mississippi chairman said on March 23.
Executives like Sanderson have good reason to want “their feet under the table to protect their interests,” Wisemann told the Mississippi Free Press on Tuesday morning.
“Not just Sanderson, but others on the committee who have contributed to Tate Reeves who felt the same way: I’m going to make sure my interests are taken care of,” he said. “I’ve worked for Delbert Hosemann before on things like election reform and so forth. … Even though his political ideology is probably different, I always saw him as a pragmatist who was interested more in trying to make things work than he was in acquiring political power.”
Sanderson was not available for comment on Tuesday morning.
Only four members of Reeves’ commission have not directly and personally donated substantial sums to his various campaigns for treasurer, lieutenant governor and governor since 2008: Jonathan Jones, Carla Lewis, Robert St. John and Doug Hederman. In two of those cases, though, the companies they represent and other executives at them have given the governor thousands, and Reeves has recorded in-kind contributions from the other two. Each of the other 13 appointees have personally contributed directly to Reeves’ campaign, and not on an “in-kind” basis.
Jones is the CEO at Jones Capital, an umbrella company that includes numerous construction and energy-related businesses. Since 2018, executives there have given Reeves a combined $42,000.
Lewis is the chief technology officer at mobile communications company C Spire, where fellow executives have given Reeves $42,500 since 2013.
Hederman, the other Restart Mississippi member with no recorded personal contributions, nevertheless records an in-kind corporate contribution to Reeves in August 2015 for $1,150 in printing services, which appears to refer to a refund. On Tuesday morning, Hederman told the Mississippi Free Press he was not sure about the reason for the contribution and would have to look into it and call back later. He did not call back by press time.
Since 2015, Reeves’ campaigns have spent $24,646 purchasing services from the Hederman Brothers Printing and Direct Mail, including printing and sending campaign mailers like ones attacking his Republican and Democratic challengers with misleading messages last year.
Reeves: Restaurants Can Resume Dine-In Services
New South Restaurant Group Owner Robert St. John has also made only an in-kind contribution to Reeves. In May 2019, the Reeves campaign recorded that St. John personally contributed $3,600 for “in-kind event expenses.”
St. John, an independent restaurateur who owns numerous popular dining spots, including The Purple Parrot and Ed’s Burger Joint in midtown Hattiesburg, had been preparing to open another Ed’s in Jackson’s Fondren neighborhood before the novel coronavirus crisis forced restaurants to cease dine-in services across the state. During the shutdown, St. John has been using Extra Table, a nonprofit he founded that ships food to 40 Mississippi soup kitchens and food pantries each month, to assist people struggling economically.
Like Sanderson, St. Johnson also served former Gov. Barbour’s post-Katrina Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal Commission in 2005.
Reeves’ commission also includes Monica Harrigill, a developer who co-founded The Sunray Companies, which operate personal grooming brands and hotel brands, including Massage Envy, Palm Beach Tan, Hampton Inn & Suites, and Holiday Inn Express & Suites—all businesses that had to cease or significantly curb services under the governor’s novel coronavirus restrictions.
The governor signaled on Monday that he plans to escalate the winding down of shutdown measures.
“I don’t want to wait if there are steps that we believe we can safely take now to ease the burden on Mississippians fighting this virus. There are thousands around the state that are set to close their doors for good. They cannot hold on much longer,” the governor said.
On May 11, restaurants will be able to reopen dine-in services, provided they screen employees daily and require them to wear cloth masks, keep capacity below 50%, screen customers upon entry, and place hand sanitizer at all entrances. During his Monday press briefing, Reeves also said that he had asked his “team” to look at ways to get CARES Act funds to salon employees and barbers whose businesses remain closed.
The drawdown of shutdown orders comes as the state continues to hover at or near its peak in COVID-19 cases reported. Mississippi recorded its biggest one-day increase in COVID-19 cases on May 1, when the State Department of Health reported 397 new cases.
On Sunday, Reeves told Fox News’ Chris Wallace that the White House criteria for a staggered reopening “doesn’t work in a state like ours.”
“We have never had more than 300 cases in any one day, with the exception of Friday in that data dump,” Reeves told the host.
But in each of the two days since that interview, the State has reported more than 300 cases. On Monday, MSDH reported 327 new cases, and 330 more today, the state’s second-largest jump on record. Today’s report is also among the deadliest, with the State reporting 32 additional deaths, bringing Mississippi’s death toll since March to 342.
Because Reeves has not made the commission’s meetings nor its recommendations public, it remains unclear whether the group played a role in his decision to allow restaurants to begin reopening dine-in services.
Restart Has Scant Diversity
Excluding the chairman, Sanderson, Reeves received almost as much in individual contributions from the people he appointed to Restart Mississippi’s executive team ($79,297) as from his 11 appointees to the commission’s impact team ($82,100). The executive team is composed exclusively of white men. Reeves has drawn criticism for the fact that, out of the 16 people he appointed to the overall commission, 14 are white, and only two are women.
Though MSDH data show that COVID-19 disproportionately affects black Mississippians and women, the task force includes just two African Americans, J5 GBL owner Jabari Edwards and Lewis, the C Spire executive. It also includes one woman of Indian descent, Harrigill. All three members are on the impact team, not the executive team. Lewis and Harrigill are the only women on the commission.
On the same day Reeves announced the overwhelmingly white and male commission, April 14, a coalition of black leaders sent a letter to Dobbs, the state health officer, asking him to make “taskforce representation” a priority and to “ensure that our actions are equitable and extend to underserved and medically-disinvested people and communities, thus preventing additional harm.”
On Tuesday morning, Wiggins of the NAACP told the Mississippi Free Press that Reeves’ decision to appoint wealthy contributors is nothing new, but that does not mean Mississippians should accept it, either.
“If I am having a conversation about how I get the economy back going, I want to hear from the workers, the people who are working in the plants,” the NAACP leader said. “There’s a long history in Mississippi of making sure that our economy works for some people and not all Mississippians. When we have conversations about how to get resources to working families in Mississippi and communities of color, we want to call those types of resources or money or funds ‘government handouts.
“But when we talk about how to get money to large businesses or wealthy individuals, we call it economic development. So I think what’s happening here is just reminiscent of what’s been happening for so long in Mississippi, where the needs and wants of working Mississippians, working families, continue to get left out of the process.”
The information below includes details about each Restart Mississippi member’s contributions to Reeves, in addition to contributions Reeves has received from the industry associations and businesses they represent.
Joe Sanderson, Chairman
CEO, Sanderson Farms
Director, Mississippi Manufacturers Association
Director, Mississippi National Chicken Council
Personal contributions: $173,083.00
Sanderson Farms, PAC, lobbyist and other executive contributions: $17,000
Mississippi Manufacturers Association PAC contributions: $75,000
CEO, Hancock Whitney
Board Member, Mississippi Bankers Association
Personal contributions: $42,102
Mississippi Bankers Association PAC contributions: $34,500
CEO, Jones Capital/Jones Companies
Personal contributions: None
Jones Companies,* other executives contributions: $42,000
*including subsidiary YAK Access.
President, Double Quick, Inc.
Secretary/Treasurer, Gresham Petroleum
President, Mississippi Gaming Commission
Personal contributions: $8,695
Gresham Petroleum Company, other executive contributions: $8,705.94
Personal contributions: $16,000
Founder, Avectus Healthcare Solutions
Founder, Smith Property Holdings
Personal contributions: $12,500
William Yates III
CEO/President, W.G. Yates & Sons Construction Company
Former Chair, Mississippi Associated Builders & Contractors PAC
Personal contributions: $31,000
Yates Company, other executive contributions: $42,000
Mississippi Associated Builders & Contractors PAC contributions: $38,000
CEO, Mississippi Power
Personal contributions: $4,000
Mississippi Power, PAC and other executives contributions: $77,500
Chief Technology Officer, C Spire
Board of Directors, Base Camp Coding Academy
Personal contributions: None
C Spire, other executive contributions: $42,500
President/CEO, Priority One Bank
Board of Directors, Mississippi Bankers Association
Personal contributions: $500.00
PriorityOne company contributions: $2,000
Mississippi Bankers Association PAC contributions: $34,500
President, Silver Creek Gin Company
President, Producer’s Flying Service
Partner, Phillips Farms
Personal contributions: $1,250
BankPlus, company other executive contributions: $28,300
Owner/Co-Founder of The Sun Ray Companies (brands include Holiday Inn Express, Palm Beach Tan, Massage Envy, Hampton Inn & Suites)
Personal contributions: $21,000
*$5,500 is from The Sunray Companies President Ray Harrigill, Monica’s Harrigill’s husband
Owner, J5 GBL, LLC
Majority Owner, The Bridge Group
Majority Owner, North Atlantic Security Company
Financial Adviser, The Edwards Agency
Personal contributions: $11,500
J5 GBL, LLC company contributions: $2,500
The Bridge Group company contributions: $1,000
President, Taylor Machine Works, Inc.
President, Taylor Holdings, Inc.
Personal contributions: $7,500
Taylor Machine Works, other company and executive contributions: $2,000
Vice President, Tenax Aerospace
Personal contributions: $2,250
Tenax Aerospace, company and other executives contributions: $1,500
Robert St. John
Owner, New South Restaurant Group
Personal contributions: $3,600*
*One-time contribution for in-kind event expenses in May 2019
President/CEO, Hederman Brothers Printing and Direct Mail
Personal contributions: None
Hederman Brothers company contributions: $1,150
*refers to a single one-time in-kind contribution in August 2019
Note: Since 2015, Tate Reeves has spent $24,646 purchasing services from the Hederman Brothers, including printing and sending campaign mailers advertisements.
Correction: This story originally had a typo that made it seem MSDH had reported 342 deaths due to COVID-19 today; the number of deaths today is 32, with 342 being the total overall. Also, the total for Robbie Barnes-related donations was reported as $38,000. The actual total is $37,000—a math error. We regret these errors.