Barbour, seeking re-election in Mississippi, under scrutiny for finances - WDAM-TV 7-News, Weather, Sports-Hattiesburg, MS

Election for governor

Barbour, seeking re-election in Mississippi, under scrutiny for finances

Gov. Haley Barbour, who leads one of the

poorest states in the union, made millions as a well-connected

Washington lobbyist for a broad cross-section of corporate America.

That is no secret. But now, as the Republican runs for

re-election, he is facing increasingly loud demands from the

Democrats that he disclose details about his holdings, including

whether he has financial ties to the high-powered Washington firm

that still bears his name.

"What is the governor hiding? Why won't he release his

financial information?" asked his Democratic challenger, John

Arthur Eaves Jr., a 41-year-old trial lawyer who has made his own

millions by suing corporations.

Eaves and other critics have been hammering on these questions

for weeks. On Wednesday, Lanny Griffith, a longtime Barbour friend

and current chief executive officer of the Barbour Griffith and

Rogers lobbying firm, issued a news release saying Barbour "has

not been involved in any aspect of the business affairs of the

firm" since becoming governor.

Griffith said Barbour receives a monthly retirement or severance

payment from the firm. Griffith didn't disclose the amount, but

said: "That payment is fixed and does not change regardless of the

financial performance of the firm."

Barbour, who was political director for the Reagan White House

in the mid-1980s and chairman of the Republican National Committee

from 1993 to 1997, said he put his assets in a blind trust when he

became governor of his home state in 2004. He said it's a common

practice for federal office holders to put their financial

interests into blind trusts.

The state Ethics Commission has ruled that Barbour does not have

to disclose his holdings. The Associated Press and other news

organizations have requested copies of financial documents Barbour

filed with the commission. This week, the commission denied those

requests, citing a state law that lets politicians decide how much

of their information to release to the public.

Barbour said disclosure would make the blind trust pointless

because he would then know the details of his investments. He

dismisses the criticism from Eaves, who has never held elected

office.

"When a candidate has nothing to offer, when he's got no

record, he's got no program, he's got no plan, he's got no facts,

he's got no ideas, then all he does is attack the other guy," said

Barbour, 59.

It is not at all clear whether the attacks will make a

difference.

Barbour appears to be on track to win a second term in November,

largely because he is credited with using his clout to bring the

state billions of federal dollars since Hurricane Katrina laid

waste to the coast two years ago.

Parts the Deep South have long had a pronounced populist streak,

with some Mississippi politicians filling their speeches with

soak-the-rich rhetoric. Many trial lawyers see Mississippi as a

good place to sue big corporations.

But personal wealth doesn't automatically hinder a candidate's

chances in Mississippi. The state has a record of electing

politicians who live like the rich - Barbour; Sen. Trent Lott, who

owned a stately, 150-year-old seaside home until Katrina washed it

away; and former Gov. Kirk Fordice, who became a millionaire with

his family's engineering business.

In fact, Barbour's challenger has a Jackson law office decorated

in a style Louis XIV would appreciate, with European antiques and

gilded mirrors.

"Mississippians, they don't care about who's rich and who's

poor," said David Sansing, a retired history professor at the

University of Mississippi.

"We've always been diverted by some issue. It used to be race.

I don't think race is now the overriding issue. The Christian right

and `family values' - that supersedes all other issues now."

In unseating Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove in 2003, Barbour

touted his own Washington insider status but said Mississippi would

be his only client. Barbour's supporters boast about his national

clout.

"What Haley can do is he can walk into any office in Washington

and everybody knows that he's there and everybody knows who he

is," said Nell Frisbie, past president of the Federation of

Republican Women in coastal Hancock County.

Barbour keeps his national political connections alive by

traveling to other states to raise money for Republicans. He has

been mentioned as a potential 2008 vice presidential nominee, but

says he's on "hurricane duty."

Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, making his own

campaign stop in Mississippi last month, said Barbour "will be on

the top of everybody's list" for a running mate.

Giuliani talked about how he and Barbour served during crisis -

the governor during Katrina and Giuliani as mayor of New York on

Sept. 11, 2001. The two men have another connection. Chris Henick,

who's from the same small town as the Mississippi governor, used to

work for Barbour Griffith and Rogers and is now a top strategist in

the Giuliani campaign.

Mississippi has weak ethics laws that require politicians to

disclose few details about their personal finances, and the laws

don't specifically address the issue of blind trusts.

The state Ethics Commission director is Tom Hood, the younger

brother of Jim Hood - the Democratic state attorney general who's

also up for re-election this year.

Since August 2006, the attorney general's office has exchanged

terse letters with the governor's personal attorney, Ed Brunini.

Jim Hood had demanded that Barbour publicly disclose what's in the

blind trust, administered by one of the governor's longtime banker

friends.

On April 6, the Ethics Commission - with members appointed by

the governor and others - issued a confidential advisory opinion to

Brunini and Barbour. On Aug. 31, Barbour let the commission

publicly release the document.

The opinion, signed by Tom Hood, said the commission concluded

that Barbour's listing only earnings from a blind trust fulfilled

requirements for politicians' disclosure of economic interests.

But, it also said the commission "could not offer any opinion

regarding a potential conflict of interest without knowing current,

detailed facts about (Barbour's) financial or family interest."

Before a recent gubernatorial debate at a Biloxi theater, a

member of the local Democratic executive committee paced outside

with a hand-lettered sign that said: "Barbour Wants Kids to Smoke,

Not Eat."

The protester, Renick Taylor, said he was upset that the

governor vetoed bills that would have raised taxes on cigarettes

and lowered Mississippi's highest-in-the-nation sales tax on

groceries.

Barbour lobbied for tobacco companies when dozens of states,

including Mississippi, were suing them in the 1990s to recover the

costs of treating sick smokers. Barbour Griffith and Rogers' blue

chip client list includes cigarette makers.

"That company still represents big tobacco and he's vetoing

taxes on tobacco," Taylor said. "That is a conflict of

interest."

Barbour, for his part, has said he vetoed the tax measures

because he opposes raising taxes and because there was too little

information available about the potential budget impact of reducing

the 7 percent grocery tax.

Democratic legislators tried unsuccessfully this year to pass a

bill that would have forced Barbour to disclose his personal

holdings.

Former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus, a Democrat who served from

January 1988 to January 1992, criticizes Barbour for not being more

forthcoming about personal financial information.

"Barbour could set all this to rest in an instant by releasing

his income taxes," said Mabus, who has raised campaign money for

Eaves. "The only reason I can think of that he doesn't is that

there is something there. Otherwise, what's the problem?"

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