Butch Brown defends MDOT record in hearings

Published 11:50 pm Tuesday, May 5, 2009

JACKSON (AP) — Butch Brown defended his record as executive director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation Tuesday to a state Senate committee that has the first say in whether he keeps his $150,000-a-year job.

Brown was combative as he responded to senators’ questions about his travel expenses, the department’s use of a contract employee who registered as a lobbyist for the agency and his public clashes with some state transportation employees and one of the state’s three elected transportation commissioners.

The Mississippi Legislature returns to the Capitol on Wednesday after having been in recess since April 1. The Senate Highways and Transportation Committee is scheduled to vote Wednesday on Brown’s nomination. If at least half of the committee’s 19 members recommend his confirmation, the matter would go to the full 52-member Senate.

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Brown quoted the Bible to defend his own use of department stationery to write letters in 2004 and 2006 asking the state Parole Board to release Douglas Hodgkin, who was convicted of capital murder in the death of a University of Mississippi student who was raped, sodomized and strangled in Oxford in 1986.

The Associated Press first reported this past weekend that Brown had written the letters, which were in Hodgkins’ parole file. The AP obtained the documents through a public records request.

Brown told senators Tuesday that Hodgkins’ crime was ‘‘the most horrendous thing that I’ve ever read or heard of.’’ He said he sent the letters because he knows and likes Hodgkins’ father, a banker in Kentucky.

‘‘I am not ashamed of offering somebody a second chance,’’ Brown said.

Brown, a former mayor of Natchez, was first nominated as the department’s director in 2001 and confirmed in 2002. He was fired by one group of elected transportation commissioners in November 2004, then rehired six weeks later when one of the three commissioners retired and a new one took office. Brown was confirmed a second time in 2005.

State law says the agency director must be confirmed by the Senate every four years.

Sen. Merle Flowers, R-Southaven, repeatedly asked Brown on Tuesday about the department’s hiring of former state Sen. George Smith as a contract employee. Brown said he considers Smith an ombudsman. Flowers said Brown had told senators months ago that Smith is a lobbyist.

Smith, who is at the Capitol regularly during legislative sessions, registered as a lobbyist for the department as a precaution, Brown said.

Responding to questions from other senators, Brown said his own travel expenses in recent years have been reasonable. The Sun Herald reported in January that taxpayers had spent $80,316 on Brown’s travel over about four years, including a trip to Europe.

Two longtime senators, Democrat Bob Dearing of Natchez and Republican Tommy Gollott of Biloxi, said they’ll vote to keep Brown in the top administrative job of a department with about 3,300 employees and a federal-state budget of $1.1 billion.

‘‘You’ve done a wonderful job in south Mississippi,’’ Gollott said, citing the department’s work in repairing coastal U.S. 90 and replacing two bay bridges since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Dearing said Brown was first hired as director based on a recommendation by then-U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. Dearing said Lott and state senators thought Brown’s extensive background in historic preservation projects and other businesses would help make the agency more efficient.


The nomination is Senate Nomination 76.