SID SALTER: Will the Legislature continue to kowtow to Butch Brown?

By Sid Salter

The Biloxi Municipal Court will determine whether Mississippi Department of Transportation executive director Larry L. “Butch” Brown was guilty of public intoxication at the Beau Rivage Casino on the morning of July 23 – as charged by the Biloxi Police Department.
Brown’s due in court on the charge on Sept. 13. A separate charge of disorderly conduct was dropped at the request of officials with the Beau Rivage Casino.
Biloxi police records say Brown was “intoxicated and unconscious” at a penny slot machine. Casino security placed Brown under citizen’s arrest until police arrived.
Brown has said the incident was a “misunderstanding” and he was neither drunk nor disorderly.
Brown was booked into the Harrison County jail, where he later posted a $480 bond.
Brown, 67, is the former mayor of Natchez. He is the appointed director of MDOT – the $2 billion state agency that controls highway, road and bridge construction and maintenance in the state.
MDOT is ostensibly run by three elected transportation commissioners. Mississippi is the only state in the union to have elected transportation commissioners. But Brown has maintained power at MDOT by keeping two of the three commissioners tied to his political apron strings and mostly by making the Central District a political whipping boy.
Brown did that to former Commissioner Wayne Burkes. He’s done it in the extreme to current Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall. Why? Hall frequently disagrees with his fellow commissioners on policy issues and he voted to fire Butch Brown during a previous term.
Butch Brown rules MDOT with an iron fist because of the support of Southern District Transportation Commissioner Wayne Brown and Northern District Transportation Commissioner Bill Minor. It’s as if they work for Butch Brown, not the other way around as the law provides.
As MDOT’s $144,000-per-year chief bureaucrat, Brown was first hired as director in 2001. He was fired from the agency in 2004, but rehired soon after on a 2-1 vote after a new commissioner took office.
Butch Brown’s political battles with Hall have become legendary in terms of both acrimony and pettiness. Hall, a frequent critic of Butch Brown, has said that if he can gain an ally on the commission that he will again vote to replace him in the agency’s top bureaucratic job. He said it again at the Neshoba County Fair last month.
While Butch Brown’s July 23 Biloxi mug shot looked more like that of the famous James Brown mug shot, the MDOT chief remains cloaked in the presumption of innocence. But in terms of Brown’s future and that of MDOT as a monolithic state agency that operates with more latitude from the Legislature than any other, some obvious questions arise.
Put, say, Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds, Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps or Department of Mental Health executive director Ed LeGrand in that same police mug shot and what are the political consequences? How would the legislative leadership react?
With the toady fealty of Wayne Brown and Bill Minor, Butch Brown has been able to operate MDOT with little legislative oversight or direction for the simple reason that lawmakers fear crossing him because they fear losing projects in their districts.
Does this incident, this “misunderstanding” in Biloxi, change that? Or will the Mississippi Legislature begin once again to oversee MDOT as it does all other state agencies?
Honest answer? I doubt it.

Sid Salter is Perspective editor at The Clarion-Ledger and a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 961-7084 or ssalter@jackson.gannett.com.