MSU interim leader repays cost of landscaping

Published 11:43 pm Thursday, October 16, 2008

JACKSON (AP) — A grand jury will decide whether charges should be pursued in a case involving landscaping work performed at taxpayer expense at the home of Mississippi Higher Education Commissioner Thomas Meredith.

State Auditor Stacey Pickering, who released the findings of his office’s investigation Thursday, said the work was performed using Mississippi State University personnel, equipment and material.

Pickering issued a demand for $12,333, which was repaid by interim MSU President Vance Watson who authorized the work.

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A spokeswoman for Pickering said Meredith wasn’t accountable for the repayment because he wasn’t in a position to authorize how the funds were spent.

Pickering will give the findings of his probe to District Attorney Forrest Allgood, who said a grand jury would convene in January.

‘‘I don’t know what all the proof is yet,’’ Allgood said. ‘‘I have no idea what the evidence is or what the bottom line will be on anybody’s exposure. A grand jury will sort out this ball of wax.’’

Pickering’s investigation of alleged misconduct by Meredith and Watson came as the state College Board, which Meredith leads, was conducting its search for a permanent MSU president. It’s a job Watson has said he wants.

Despite the report, Meredith issued a statement saying he was pleased to be ‘‘exonerated’’ by the state auditor.

‘‘It is now time for everyone to again focus on the important mission of higher education in Mississippi,’’ Meredith said.

Watson said in a statement he was ready for the university to move forward.

‘‘We have fully cooperated with the college board and the state auditor’s office in trying help resolve recent allegations,’’ Watson said.

Senate Universities Chairman Doug Davis, R-Hernando, said Meredith and Vance should step down.

‘‘What the state auditors revealed today is that both men showed a lapse of judgement and I don’t see how they can continue in their positionsm,’’ Davis said.

According to Pickering, the landscaping work was performed in March 2007 after Meredith made a request to Watson for a recommendation about landscaping and soil testing — normal activities performed for Mississippi landowners. At the time, Watson was vice president and director of the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Experiment Station.

‘‘It started out as any other extension service project would have started,’’ said Pickering spokeswoman Lisa Shoemaker.

She said the problem occurred when MSU personnel, equipment and trees purchased by the university were used on private property.

‘‘The extension service would not normally do that,’’ she said.

Meredith assumed Mississippi’s top higher education post in 2005. He’s paid $366,350 a year. Along with the College Board, he oversees Mississippi’s eight public universities.

Vance is one of the candidates for the MSU presidency, which was left vacant after Robert ‘‘Doc’’ Foglesong, a retired U.S. Air Force general, abruptly resigned in March after two years on the job.

Meredith has been on paid administrative leave during the investigation. He will remain on leave, said College Board spokeswoman Annie Mitchell.

Mitchell said the board members also have received the auditor’s report and ‘‘they will take appropriate action at the appropriate time.’’

She said the board wouldn’t comment about any of the finalists in the MSU search because it’s against board policy. She said the board plans to have a president named by November.