JACKSON – Larry “Butch” Brown, the controversial executive director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation, received harsh criticism and lavish praise Tuesday during his re-confirmation hearing before the Senate Transportation Committee.
He was criticized by his opponents for running a dictatorial agency, punishing his enemies and wasting taxpayer money. His supporters praised him as an innovative leader who led the effort to rebuild the destroyed transportation system on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.
The Transportation Committee met for about four hours Tuesday afternoon to question Brown and to hear from his opponents and supporters. The committee is expected to vote on the confirmation today. If approved by the committee, Chairman Tom King, R-Petal, said he would bring Brown’s nomination before the full Senate on Thursday.
Various observers predicted Brown would be confirmed, despite the contentious nature of the hearing. Sen. Lee Yancey, R-Brandon, said Brown reminded him of the Peanuts cartoon character Pigpen because “it seems stuff is stirred up everywhere you go.”
Part of what makes Brown controversial is the fact that he serves as executive director by a 2-1 vote of the Transportation Commission. Central District Commissioner Dick Hall opposes Brown and their feud often has been public.
Hall was not at the hearing to testify. But Shirley Rutland, an agency employee who works for Hall, recounted how she was fired by Brown but successfully sued to have her position reinstated, claiming she was terminated only because of her loyalty to Hall. She said Brown spent $143,000 in public funds to try to fight her lawsuit.
“That is just one example of how Mr. Brown uses public funds to punish his enemies – only if perceived enemies – and conversely to reward his friends,” she said.
But Tim Johnson, a Madison County supervisor, testified that Brown has worked to improve the transportation system in central Mississippi, despite his feud with Hall.
Northern District Transportation Commissioner Bill Minor said Brown had been effective in garnering additional federal funds for the state’s highway system.
Brown was questioned multiple times about letters he sent to the state Parole Board advocating the release of Douglas Hodgkin, who was convicted in 1987 for the brutal slaying of University of Mississippi student Jean Elizabeth Gillies. Brown said he had met Hodgkin’s father through a professional acquaintance.
Brown said he believed in redemption and second chances, but said he was hoping Hodgkin could be transferred to a Kentucky prison to be closer to his family. But in a letter to the Parole Board, Brown advocated the parole of Hodgkin, who was released earlier this year and is living in Kentucky.
Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal