JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi's state auditor and a legislative watchdog committee say there's no merit to allegations that an opponent of Mississippi Power Co.'s Kemper County plant misspent state money.
The Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review and the auditor's office both said in December that Bigger Pie Forum isn't funded with state money, stopping inquiries.
JobKeeper Alliance, a union-linked group based in Montgomery, Ala., charged Bigger Pie was using public money from the private Institute for Technology Development. ITD was created to commercialize research from Mississippi universities, receiving millions in state and federal money. PEER and the auditor say ITD, which has millions in cash but is now largely dormant, no longer has any state funds. The institute says it has transferred as much as $400,000 to Bigger Pie, but says the funding comes from technology licensing proceeds and is not public money.
"The committee believes there are no funds remaining at ITD that would give the committee jurisdiction to conduct a review of the entity," PEER stated in its minutes. The committee voted unanimously Dec. 11 to accept the finding.
On Dec. 13. Brad White, state Auditor Stacey Pickering's chief of staff, wrote in an email that "We concur with PEER's findings in that we neither see evidence to pursue this issue as ITD does not appear to currently be operating with public funds."
The email was sent to state Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, who is ITD's lawyer.
Bigger Pie has fought the $5 billion coal-fueled Kemper plant, saying it's a colossal mistake forced on Mississippi Power's 186,000 ratepayers by pressure to inflate the company's profits. They say Mississippi Power should have built a natural gas plant instead, saying gas will be cheap for decades because of advances in drilling technology.
JobKeeper and other Kemper proponents have disputed those claims, saying say there's no guarantee natural gas prices will stay low and that Mississippi will get an economic boost from the plant's use of adjacent lignite coal.
Bigger Pie President Ashby Foote welcomed the findings.
"The initial charges against us were trumped up charges designed to intimidate and deflect our message, because I think we were having an impact," Foote told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
JobKeeper Executive Director Patrick Cagle said the inquiries weren't deep enough, that he still believes Bigger Pie misused public money, and renewed his calls for a full audit.
"This is simply ridiculous," he wrote in an email. "How can you conclude that there are no state funds, or money derived from the investment of state funds, at ITD without an audit?"
Amoi Geter, a spokeswoman for Mississippi Power, declined comment on the findings.
Foote renewed claims that JobKeeper is doing the bidding of Southern Co., pointing to the organization's activities supporting another of the Atlanta-based company's units, Alabama Power Co. However, he said he couldn't prove Southern is directing JobKeeper's activities.
Cagle said JobKeeper fights to preserve jobs for working men and women.
"Let me make it clear, I am not a front for Southern Company or for anyone else," he said.
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