Mississippi AG candidates trade barbs over public corruption fight

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By Steve Wilson  /   September 15, 2015 | www.MississippiWatchdog.org

CAMPAIGNING: Former assistant U.S. attorney Mike Hurst faces an uphill challenge against four-time incumbent Jim Hood.

CAMPAIGNING: Former assistant U.S. attorney Mike Hurst faces an uphill challenge against four-time incumbent Jim Hood.

Mississippi’s general election, set for Nov. 3, should see runaway races at the top of the ticket, and a chance for the Republican Party to make a clean sweep if it can retake the office of the state’s highest law enforcement officer.

The Democratic Party has a truck driver, Robert Gray, running against incumbent Gov. Phil Bryant. A former GOP state senator who switched parties and sometimes Elvis impersonator Tim Johnson is running against incumbent Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.

The closest battle is likely to be for attorney general, where Democrat Jim Hood is running for his fourth term against Republican challenger and former assistant U.S. attorney Mike Hurst.

Hurst says it’s the perfect opportunity for him to knock off the last major Democrat holding statewide office in Mississippi.

“It seems to me our state is in a bad situation in terms of public corruption,” Hurst told Mississippi Watchdog. “I think it’s a big issue in the mind of voters and there’s a big question in terms of what our state is doing about it. We’ve done a pretty good job in the U.S. Attorney’s office, but we need to be looking at the attorney general’s office to see why they’re not doing anything in that world.

The two candidates traded barbs Monday at the Capitol City Press Club in what’ll be the closest Mississippi voters will get to a debate. Hood declined Hurst’s challenge to a series of three debates, citing his “full-time job” and “family obligations.”

Hurst challenged Hood’s record on fighting public corruption. As an assistant U.S. attorney from 2006 through this year, Hurst successfully prosecuted corruption cases against former Mississippi Department of Corrections commissioner Chris Epps, Vicksburg mayor Paul Winfield and Harrison County supervisor Kim Savant, among others. Hood blamed his office’s lack of wiretap authority as the reason why his office has not been more active in public corruption cases.

“I’ve been to the Legislature and tried to get them to pass wire tap authority for the attorney general,” Hood said. “They passed it, years ago, but guess who they passed it for? Drug dealers. We asked for it for white collar and that’s how you make a white collar case. We use the assets we have, but we don’t have many.”

“We (the AG’s office and the federal government) work well together. If the federal government has a case that they’re better able to handle, I’m all for it. I don’t do politics. I just call balls and strikes.”

“In my experience in the U.S. attorney’s office, we never worked with them (the attorney general’s office). Not once,” Hurst said. He also accused Hood’s office of leaks involving an investigation of former Mendenhall police chief Bruce Barlow, who was convicted of conspiracy to commit extortion, bribery and theft and was sentenced to five years in prison last year.

Hood deflected the charge, saying “the FBI doesn’t necessarily share things with the U.S. Attorney’s office or anyone else for that matter. We have several task forces we’re involved with…we have investigators assigned to full-time. The FBI. The U.S. Marshall’s Service. So many agencies. We have several agencies that we work with other than the U.S. Attorney’s office.”

Hood said his office has been active during his tenure fighting what he calls “corporate corruption” and claims to have generated more than $300 billion in jury awards for litigation “on behalf of Mississippians” against several pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, BP, several banks, tobacco companies and Microsoft.

“If I were a Republican and I went out and hired private lawyers, it’d be called privatization,” Hood said. “The Legislature is not going to appropriate $40 million to hire lawyers who understand securities fraud because there isn’t a securities lawyer in Mississippi. They’re in New York and other places. We need that expertise. We don’t need to be paying some lawyer $300,000 per year to wait on a securities case. It’s wise and efficient.”

An analysis by Hans Bader of the free market-leaning Competitive Enterprise Institute pegs Hood as the nation’s second worst state attorney general. It cites his continuing litigation against Google over its third-party ads and his practice of paying trial lawyers for litigation for the state, who return the favor with campaign contributions to Hood or the Democratic Attorneys General Association, a Denver-based 527 group that is Hood’s largest contributor. His latest campaign finance filingwith the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office shows $300,000 in contribution from DAGA so far this year.

Google sued Hood for allegedly conspiring with the Motion Picture Association of America in a campaign to revive a failed bill in Congress, the Stop Online Piracy Act, and censor search results on the search engine. In a filing with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Google released emails between Hood’s office and Brian Cohen, the director of external state government affairs for the MPAA, that showed a cozy alliance between the MPAA and Hood’s office.

“The public is beginning to see the answer. He’s basically sold his office to Hollywood,” Hurst said. “When you have e-mails coming out where Hollywood lobbyists are writing subpoenas for the AG’s office, they’re meeting with the AG’s staff, they’re coordinating strategy on how to go after a privately held company, smear them in the newspapers on and on television.

“His entire justification for qualifying for re-election was to finish this fight with Google. Not to prosecute public corruption. Not to fight the Obama administration on all of the regulations that our choking our businesses and citizens to death. It blows my mind and it’s not a priority that our state attorney general should be pursuing right now.”

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