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Solar company’s donations to Brandon Presley appear legal. But should he have accepted them?

Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, the Democratic nominee for governor, has accepted thousands of dollars in donations from people whose companies have come before the commission to seek approval for certain projects.

There is no evidence that the political contributions violated any state law. But as he campaigns around the state and pitches campaign finance and ethics law reforms, the contributions beg the question: Should he have accepted them?

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves’ campaign plainly accused Presley this month of breaking state law in a pair of TV ads, alleging the governor’s Democratic opponent illegally accepted campaign donations from leaders of a Tennessee-based solar company called Silicon Ranch.

The basis for the attack is a state law that prohibits public service commissioners or candidates from accepting campaign donations from representatives of public utilities the commission is responsible for regulating.

An attorney for the Public Service Commission told Mississippi Today, though, that Silicon Ranch is not a public utility, which should allow commissioners to legally accept the contributions.

“Speaking through its orders, the commission has consistently found that Silicon Ranch, as well as other companies, are not public utilities,” Ross Hammons, general counsel for the Public Service Commission, said in a statement.

Hammons, who is employed by the three elected commissioners, said the commission’s process for determining what a public utility is goes back to the late 1990s and has remained consistent over the years.

A campaign finance database created by Mississippi Today shows that Presley has accepted at least $16,500 in contributions from Silicon Ranch employees. He previously called Reeves’ allegations untrue and maintains that all of his campaign donations are “completely legal.”

READ MORE: See who has donated to Brandon Presley

A Reeves campaign spokesperson did not substantively answer questions from Mississippi Today for this article but repeated the campaign’s assertion that the donations were illegal because the PSC has some jurisdiction over the solar company. 

“Mississippi’s laws prohibit donations from ‘electric utilities…that come under the jurisdiction of the PSC,’” the spokesperson said. “They do not apply solely to ‘public utilities.’ That requires the most generous possible reading of the law.”

Republican Brent Bailey, who serves on the Public Service Commission with Presley and has also accepted money from Silicon Ranch employees as recently as this year, said Reeves’ attacks are “without substance.”

Bailey, in a statement to Mississippi Today, defended his acceptance of the Silicon Ranch donations and said he was proud to “lead the charge” for renewable energy.

“All my campaign donations have been vetted, are legal and appropriate,” Bailey said. “This is a typical election-season political attack with no substance, and it unfairly and incorrectly implicates the current members of the Mississippi Public Service Commission.” 

The Reeves campaign did not respond to Bailey’s comments or to Mississippi Today’s questions asking if they believed Bailey had also violated state law by accepting the Silicon Ranch donations.

READ MORE: Solar energy company threatens to sue Tate Reeves campaign for airing ‘defamatory’ TV ad

Presley sat on commission when Silicon Ranch project was approved

Mississippi law defines a public utility as an organization or company that, in part, operates equipment for “the generation, manufacture, transmission, distribution, provision of electricity to the public” for compensation.

But Silicon Ranch does not provide electricity to the general public for profit, and the PSC does not set its rates. The company, instead, provides electricity to public utilities. 

The company, according to its website, has completed two Mississippi-based solar projects: One in Meridian in conjunction with the Naval Air Station, and one in Hattiesburg, operated in partnership with Mississippi Power. Neither of these are offering electricity to the public.

State law still requires organizations such as Silicon Ranch to come before the Public Service Commission to obtain a “certificate of public convenience and necessity” before transferring electricity to another entity. 

The company came before the commission in 2017 to obtain approval for its Meridian project, and the commission, in an order, unanimously approved the project. Presley, of course, served on the commission at that time.

The order states: “Petitioner Silicon Ranch is not a public utility and the project is not utility property under the laws of the state of Mississippi. It is further ordered that petitioner Silicon Ranch is not subject to the Commission’s jurisdiction except for the requirement of obtaining a certificate of public convenience and necessity.”

The only way someone could shed more clarity on the public utility status is if the Legislature chooses to change the definition or if a judge interprets the statute differently than a commission. But a judge would only address the issues if someone appeals a Public Service Commission order to the court system.

Mississippi Today was unable to identify an instance when a similar company appealed a commission’s order to the court system, meaning there is no Mississippi judicial ruling or legal analysis of a public utility definition outside of the PSC’s rulings.

While there is no available evidence to suggest Presley or other commissioners who have accepted similar donations have committed a crime, a prosecutor could, in theory, bring charges against the Democratic nominee.

Reeves’ campaign did not answer questions about whether they had referred the matter to the Mississippi Attorney General’s office for investigation. The attorney general would be most equipped to handle such a prosecution or launch an investigation, but the agency declined to answer questions about the issue.

Debbee Hancock, a spokesperson for Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s office, did not answer a question from Mississippi Today asking if anyone had filed a complaint with the agency about the donations or if the agency was investigating the donations. 

Instead, Hancock issued a terse statement saying the agency does not comment on open investigations. She did not respond to a follow-up question seeking to clarify if her statement meant the agency was conducting an ongoing investigation of the donations, nor did she respond when Mississippi Today pointed out that the agency has commented on investigations in the past.

READ MORE: Fitch says she’s investigating PAC run by Chris McDaniel treasurer

Absence of ethics laws in Mississippi

For many years, many elected officials in Mississippi have benefitted from the general absence of “pay-to-play” prohibitions.

Candidates for the Public Service Commission, because of past corruption scandals, face stricter campaign finance laws than most other elected officials. PSC candidates are prohibited from taking contributions from officers of public utilities whose rates the commission sets.

But across state politics, it’s common for owners or executives of companies that reap millions of dollars a year from Mississippi taxpayers or receive favorable policy decisions to be among the largest donors to the state’s top public officials.

Mississippi Today published an investigation this week that showed Reeves’ top political donors were awarded $1.4 billion in state contracts or grants from agencies he’s overseen since he became governor in 2020.

READ MORE: Gov. Tate Reeves’ top political donors received $1.4 billion in state contracts from his agencies

Though there is no evidence that the Silicon Ranch donations to Presley violate state law, he has accepted thousands of dollars in donations from people who have come before the commission to seek approval for certain projects — though the projects are limited in scope and do not draw down taxpayer funding.

The Democratic candidate did not substantively answer questions from Mississippi Today on Oct. 15 asking if he thought accepting the donations was ethical or if he thought it was hypocritical of him to take the contributions while pitching campaign finance reforms.

Instead, he reiterated that the solar company donations were legal and suggested the press ask Reeves if it’s ethical for him to accept donations from people who receive state contracts. 

“That’s a great question to ask him about Centene health care,” Presley said of Reeves. “It’s a great question for him to be asked about millions of dollars that he has taken in from folks that do business with the state. I can tell you, for me, every contribution we’ve had come in is legal.”

As he’s being attacked by Reeves for violating state ethics laws, Presley has made ethics reform a major plank of his 2023 campaign. Specific ideas Presley pitched this year include:

  • Limiting the gifts that politicians could receive from lobbyists.
  • More timely reporting of lobbyists’ expenditures on politicians.
  • Preventing politicians from receiving campaign contributions while the Legislature is in session.
  • Requiring a politician to wait one year after leaving office before becoming a lobbyist.
  • Prohibiting corporations from making campaign contributions and limiting the size of contributions from others.
  • Ensuring the Legislature is covered by open meetings laws.
  • Increasing penalties for violations of lobbying and campaign finance laws.

But in the meantime, the state’s relevant laws are loose. The secretary of state’s office and Ethics Commission have for years said they lack enforcement or investigative authority. The secretary of state’s office is responsible for receiving campaign finance reports but serves mainly as a repository, with no real investigative or enforcement authority. The Ethics Commission, after some changes to laws in recent years, appears to have some authority, but it’s unclear.

“It’s a mess,” state Ethics Commission Director Tom Hood said recently of Mississippi’s campaign finance laws. “Changes (to the law) have been made multiple times over multiple years, and it’s like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t fit.”

Fitch, as the state’s top law officer, runs the only state agency with clear authority to investigate and prosecute campaign finance violations. But Fitch, like her recent predecessors, has shown little interest in investigating or prosecuting complaints and enforcing campaign finance laws. Mississippi attorney general actions on campaign finances or lobbying over the years have been so rare that, when they do happen, they bring outcry of selective enforcement.

Most often, campaign finance violations go unchecked, leaving the state political system open to the corrosive influence of special interest money.

Hood said he would like for laws and responsibilities to be clearer, particularly with campaign finance issues.

“Somebody needs to have clear authority and responsibility to enforce the law — that would be a good first step,” Hood said.

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