Headlines – 1/27/2006

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 27, 2006

The Panolian: HEADLINES – January 27, 2006

  From the 1/27/06 issue of The Panolian       

Branded: cattle plant operator pleads guilty
Court appearances included Batesville
By David Howell
and Billy Davis

A quiet plea agreement became public Thursday when federal and state officials announced that former cattle plant operator Richard Hall had pleaded guilty to both federal and state charges.

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At a well-publicized press conference Thursday in Oxford, United States Attorney Jim Greenlee announced that Hall pleaded guilty to two federal counts, one for money laundering and one count for "scheme to defraud by mail and wire."

The charges are "a product of an ongoing investigation," Greenlee said Thursday.

In the plea, Hall admitted to taking $751,000 of state funds when he was president of Mississippi Beef Processors, LLC, in Oakland.

Following Greenlee’s announcement, District Attorney John Champion told news reporters that Hall had also pleaded guilty to three state counts of mail fraud.

Hall made a court appearance Wednesday at federal court in Oxford and circuit court in Batesville prior to the Thursday press conference that featured Greenlee, Champion and several high-profile state officials.

In a plea appearance that was apparently kept secret, Hall appeared before Circuit Judge Andrew C. Baker Wednesday at 2 p.m. at the Panola County Courthouse.

A circuit court employee said the county office was notified about the coming plea Tuesday and told to keep the matter quiet.

According to the plea agreement, Hall could serve eight years in federal prison for the schemes. For his state violations, the district attorney will also recommend eight years, per the plea agreement, to serve concurrent with the federal sentence.

Hall will also have to make restitution.

The charges against Hall came after more than 12 months of investigative work from the Mississippi Beef Investigative Task Force, a joint venture between state and federal investigators in multiple agencies.

Hall, 45, is out on $100,000 bond and will be sentenced within 60 days. His current address is listed as Clarksville, Tennessee.

He was represented by attorney Mike Watts of the Holcomb Dunbar law firm.

Also speaking at the Thursday conference were Attorney General Jim Hood and State Auditor Phil Bryant.

"Money is the root of all evil," Hood said after spending over a year with the task force trailing the money and apparent schemes.

Hood also said he planned to file a lawsuit against an Atlanta-based company, The Facility Group, which received a $3.2 million fee for consulting work on the plant. Hood said the company still owes approximately $1.7 million to vendors.

In the press conference, Bryant called for more oversight in the future for similar endeavors that are funded by tax dollars.

The total cost to Mississippi taxpayers for the state-backed plant has been $55 million. Of that money, Hall admitted in the plea agreements that he had diverted $751,094.59 for his personal use.

The beef plant opened in August 2004, but closed three months later after Hall had run out of capital and had problems with the design of the facility. Prior to opening, the state-backed operation had been plagued with cost overruns.

The conversion of this public and corporate money to Hall’s personal use along with kickback schemes with construction companies and equipment suppliers was the erosion that cracked the foundation of the operation, according to federal prosecutors.

When the plant closed, it was employing 300 people, including about 60 from Panola County.

As the conference concluded, Greenlee asked for public input.

Anyone who may have information about the company can call the FBI at (601) 948-5000 or State Auditor Phil Bryant at (601) 576-2722.

Mettetal casts override vote on tobacco, grocery tax bill
By Billy Davis

When a state senate committee cast votes last week, Sen. Nolan Mettetal was among those who voted to override Gov. Haley Barbour’s veto of a bill that would increase cigarette taxes and eliminate the tax on groceries.

The Senate Finance Committee voted 14-10 January 20 to override Barbour’s veto, setting up an opportunity for the full Senate to cast a vote.

The issue of the tobacco tax and grocery tax is creating "considerable division" in the state House and Senate, Mettetal said, but he believes both bills will help Mississippians.

"The tobacco tax will save lives. That’s how I framed (the debate) on the floor of the Senate," Mettetal told the newspaper, speaking Thursday from the state capital.

Mettetal is a Democrat from Sardis.

Senate Bill 2310 would raise the price of a pack of cigarettes from 18 cents a pack to $1 a pack. The state’s seven-percent grocery tax would be phased out through 2014.

In the House, Panola legislators Rep. Leonard Morris and Rep. Warner McBride, both Democrats, are supporting similar bills.

McBride called the legislation "one of the most important votes I have taken" in a political commentary in today’s issue of The Panolian.

Morris co-authored legislation last year to increase the tobacco tax.

Mettetal said he personally supported dropping the grocery tax only to 3.5 percent, the amount it will drop to on June 1, 2007.

"I wish it had stopped at that, but you can’t always get everything you want," Mettetal said.

The state senator said public input about the proposed legislation is leaning 50 to 1 in its favor.

Principal, high school hope testing helps students ‘take that next step’
     South Panola High junior Lisa Legge (right) and mother Sareeta (left) look over the student’s test results of the PSAT with friend Polly Poe. While the exam is a qualifier to be a National Merit Semi-finalist, students can also use it to gauge their strengths and weaknesses in the classroom.
By Billy Davis

South Panola High School faculty members doled out test results and chocolate chip cookies to more than 200 students and their parents at a Tuesday evening academic event.

High school principal Dr. Gearl Loden estimated a crowd of 250 gathered in the high school cafeteria to receive results of the PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test), a national standardized test.

SP students in grades 9, 10, and 11 took the PSAT November of last year, part of the high school’s quest to groom a National Merit semi-finalist.

While the PSAT is a qualifier for a semi-finalist, Loden told parents Tuesday the exam also gives parents, students and school administrators a better understanding of students’ strengths and weaknesses.

Although the PSAT is a challenging exam, the principal said, it also works as an indicator for students’ scoring on the ACT, the college entry exam.

"There is a lot of (scholarship) money for students who score high, and parents and students should be aware of that potential," Loden said.

Loden also urged parents to encourage their children to take challenging pre-college courses instead of opting for easier school subjects.

South Panola offers a variety of advanced and advanced placement courses in math, English, biology, history and other subjects.

"I’m not knocking co-op, but too many of our students are taking co-op and an easy math and getting out of school after a half-day," Loden told the assembled crowd.

High school counselor Shauna Myers, who helped the crowd read the test scores, also encouraged parents to push their students academically.

"We want them taking accelerated classes," Myers said. "We want them to graduate equipped to take that next step in a college classroom."

After the event, Loden said he was grateful that parents seemed to hear his plea about the challenging classes.

"The parents were asking for recommendations for their kids to take," Loden told The Panolian. "They asked some really good questions, and you could tell they were really into it."

South Panola High is a Level 3 public school, which ranks as "excellent" in the state department of education’s 1 to 5 classification system.

South Panola school board leaders are quietly pushing for better academics at the high school and across the school district, a plan that led to Loden’s hiring this summer and his own push for improved academics.

The school district’s goals include raising its schools to Level 4 status and, at the high school, achieving a 90-percent graduation rate.

At Tuesday night’s event, South Panola parent Larry Shearon said he appreciates Loden’s apparent focus on academics.

"The Tigers are good at football, but I’m glad they’re pushing academics, too," Shearon said. "We’ve graduated some pro football players, and now maybe we can graduate some scholars, too."

Shearon attended the event with daughter Briana, a South Panola 10th grader, who said she plans to attend pharmacy school at Ole Miss.

The sophomore scored a 157 on the PSAT, which is above the average scores for both 10th and 11th graders.
The average national score for 11th graders is 144, Loden told the crowd.

The highest score came from an 11th grader who scored 187, Loden had earlier told The Panolian.

South Panola sophomore Bynithia Cole picked up her test results along with her mother, Cynthia Cole.

The 10th grader, who wants to attend Mississippi State, scored a 126 on the PSAT, her test results showed.

"I want her to do her best and excel at whatever she plans to do," the mother said. "I want her to be the best she can be in life."

Echoing Loden’s comments Tuesday night, South Panola Superintendent Dr. Keith Shaffer said the PSAT gave parents an "early check" on their child’s progress.

Shaffer said high schoolers and their parents will gradually see teachers "tighten the screws" to make college prep courses more challenging.

Body had toxic cocaine level
By Billy Davis

A Memphis woman found dead in north Panola County died of an apparent drug overdose, Panola County coroner Gracie Grant-Gulledge announced Thursday.

Gulledge and sheriff’s investigators met Thursday with the family of Christina Walker, 30, to disclose the results of a toxicology report.

Walker’s body contained "toxic" levels of cocaine, the coroner told The Panolian after meeting with Walker’s mother at the sheriff’s department.

The mother lives in Tunica, she said.

A tractor driver spotted Walker’s body January 12 on Union Road. An autopsy performed the next day showed no signs of trauma.

In the meeting, sheriff’s investigators also told the family they are still seeking answers about why her body was dumped in Panola County, said investigator Barry Thompson.

The investigation so far has found no apparent ties between Walker and Panola County, Thompson told the newspaper.

Frustrating the investigation is a lack of witnesses who are willing to talk and difficult to locate, the investigator also said.

"All we know is we believe the body was dumped and know it wasn’t a homicide," Thompson said. "The investigation centers on how she got to Panola County."



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