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Senate confirms Gov. Tate Reeves’ economic development chief despite report of toxic workplace, claims of harassment

The Mississippi Senate on Wednesday unanimously confirmed Bill Cork as Gov. Tate Reeves’ pick for a permanent chief economic development officer, despite a background report provided to senators that he “created a toxic workplace” and had faced complaints including sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment.

In a hearing before his Senate confirmation, Cork said he did nothing wrong, has a winning economic development record, has overhauled MDA.

“… If that takes a little hostility to get that done, that’s what’s going to happen,” Cork said in the hearing on Tuesday.

Cork is now the first permanent director of the state’s economic development agency since 2021, when former agency director John Rounsaville resigned after sexual misconduct allegations.

Cork is credited with recently helping the state land record-setting large economic developments, including Amazon Web Services’ commitment to spend $10 billion to construct two “hyperscale data centers” in Madison County.

A background report provided to the Senate Finance Committee before members voted to confirm him said that Cork, who has worked at MDA since September of 2020, was investigated by the Mississippi Personnel Board in 2021. The investigation followed a claim against Cork of sexual harassment, age discrimination and creating a hostile work environment while he was serving as chief economic development officer at MDA.

The personnel board said it conducted the investigation at Gov. Reeves’ request. It submitted a report to Reeves after the investigation that said Cork had been uncooperative with the investigation, and that while no legal violations were found, “Cork’s management style has created a toxic workplace.” Personnel recommended Cork receive a written reprimand and that he complete at least 12 hours of training on workforce harassment, which he completed.

Cork was traveling Thursday, his office said, and could not be reached for comment. In a Senate Finance confirmation hearing on Wednesday, Cork addressed the report after Sen. Bradford Blackmon asked about it.

Cork said he helped lead “reorganizing and reforming” MDA, resulting in two-thirds of the project management and international teams leaving the agency, and “we had a small cadre of employees that didn’t like what was happening.”

“At the end of the day, the state Personnel Board found I hadn’t done anything illegal, but that I was a tough boss,” Cork said. “Some people find that level of tough and directedness to be a little hostile. None of it was directed at anyone, but when you’re trying to put together a winning team, you just don’t settle for second-place.

“… I don’t apologize for anything I’ve done because I didn’t do anything wrong,” Cork said. “I didn’t cooperate with the investigation because I didn’t do anything wrong, and that’s exactly what that investigation found.”

State Personnel Director Kelly Hardwick said: “Regretfully, (Cork) didn’t cooperate with the investigation, which might have changed our determination. Because he didn’t, we were left with only the testimony of the accusations.”

Hardwick declined to provide details of the allegations against Cork, and his office would not release its report to Mississippi Today, citing public records exemptions for personnel records.

Hardwick said Cork did successfully complete the state workplace harassment training and implemented some of the practices recommended in the training.

“He’s been shown to be successful and there have been no other complaints on him since,” Hardwick said. “From our standpoint he successfully did what we recommended to the governor.”

Both the Senate Finance Committee and full Senate voted unanimously for Cork’s confirmation.

Senate Finance Chairman Josh Harkins noted the report said personnel board found no legal violations, and that Cork openly addressed the allegations in committee. He said he received recommendation letters for Cork from across the state and country and, “It’s hard to argue with the product MDA has put out in the last few months.”

A spokesman for Reeves praised Cork, said the “old” personnel complaint is not credible and criticized Mississippi Today.

“Bill Cork has gotten better results for the people of Mississippi than almost any other employee of state government in decades,” Reeves Deputy Chief of Staff Cory Custer said in a statement. “… (Cork) opted to make the results of the investigation known, addressed it in detail in his confirmation hearing yesterday, and was then unanimously confirmed. It would not be a surprise to see a biased article that hypes up discredited nonsense, but it would be a disservice to a great, hard-working man.”

Cork has previously served as deputy director and chief economic development officer at MDA. He formerly led the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission and before that was the CEO of an industrial complex in New Boston, Texas. He is a Marine Corps veteran and received a master of Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Reeves on Aug. 13, 2021, announced Cork’s predecessor, Rounsaville, would be “stepping down” at the end of that month as MDA director to spend more time with his family and less time traveling. Reeves thanked him for his service and wished him well.

But Mississippi Today reported that sexual misconduct allegations had led to Rounsaville’s resignation, and that Reeves had in July received a personnel investigation report and recommendation Rounsaville be fired. After that report, Reeves said Rounsaville had been put on administrative leave and removed from day-to-day operations at MDA and that his resignation had been tendered Aug. 13 after an investigation into his conduct.

An allegedly intoxicated Rounsaville allegedly made sexual advances toward three subordinate female MDA employees at a bar in Biloxi while attending a business conference.

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