Four Defendants Enter Innocent Pleas in Utility Bribery, Conspiracy Case
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) _ A state public service commissioner and a former commissioner pleaded innocent Friday to federal bribery and conspiracy charges stemming from an alleged scheme to pressure a utility into settling a more than $400 million lawsuit.
Public Service Commissioner D.W. Snyder, former Commissioner Lynn Havens and two businessmen were each released on $5,000 bond after entering innocent pleas before before U.S. Magistrate John R. Countiss III. He set the trial for March 6.
The 19-count federal grand jury indictment was made public Thursday.
Charged with one count each of conspiracy are Snyder, 73, one of the three state public service commissioners since 1964; Havens, 52, a former commissioner who resigned Jan. 11 amid rumors he was under investigation by the FBI; Travis Ward, 68, a Dallas oil tycoon whose current business interests include the Nautilus exercise equipment company; and Thurston Little, 54, a Corinth businessman.
″I don’t like people stealing my headlines,″ quipped Little, an unsuccessful 1987 candidate for highway commissioner, as he joined the other three defendants in a packed courtroom.
″I thought wouldn’t it be good if we could have brought Gorbachev into Jackson this week,″ Havens joked.
In addition to the conspiracy count, Ward was charged with 13 counts of travel in interstate commerce to bribe public officials; and Havens and Snyder each were charged with three counts of accepting bribes.
Havens is accused of taking the proceeds from a $50,000 loan co-signed by Ward, while Snyder is accused of taking $16,000 in cash. Havens contends he did nothing illegal because he repaid Ward. Snyder says he never received the $16,000. Little is accused of acting as an intermediary for Ward in the scheme.
The charges stem from an alleged plan to have the public service commissioners tell Mississippi Power & Light Co. officials they wouldn’t approve a 14.7 percent rate hike to pay for the utlity’s portion of the Grand Gulf nuclear power plant in Port Gibson unless MP&L agreed to an out-of-court settlement in its breach of contract lawsuit against United Gas Pipeline of Houston.
On Sept. 20, 1985, the three-member Public Service Commission approved a settlement of the utility’s lawsuit against the pipeline company that totaled $165 million, or less than half the $400 million the utility had originally sought.
Ward was retained to help settle the lawsuit, said James Tramuto, United Gas Pipeline’s vice president for government affairs. But Tramuto said the company has changed hands several times since 1985, and the current ownership and management knows nothing about the alleged conspiracy.
Nielsen Cochran, the third public service commissioner, wasn’t indicted.