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What’s Haley Barbour’s Angle?

That’s the first question you want to ask yourself any time you see something that makes little public-policy sense go down in Mississippi. The reason is that, as Brad Plumer and I documented in this piece several years ago, Barbour has never convincingly demonstrated that he severed ties to the lobbying firm he founded, Barbour, Griffith, & Rogers (BGR), when he became governor of Mississippi in 2004. At the time, we were struck by the way Barbour had twice-vetoed and continued to oppose a wildly popular “tax swap” plan that would have cut the state’s hugely regressive grocery tax and replaced it with a tax increase on tobacco. The thing that caught our eye was that BGR had received some $2 million in revenue from tobacco companies since Barbour became governor. If Barbour had an interest in his old firm, as documents we obtained suggested, then it would be a massive conflict of interest, to say the least.

OK, so keep that in mind as you read the following: Last month, Amy McCullough, a dogged reporter with the Mississippi Business Journal, wrote an important piece laying out the way Barbour’s old firm had helped the subsidiary of a longtime client, Southern Company, obtain $270 million in Department of Energy money for a clean-coal facility in Kemper County, Mississippi. The facility will cost far more than that--at least $2.4 billion--and the difference will be born by local ratepayers. As governor, Barbour has been overwhelmingly supportive of the project, which would distinguish his administration from its counterpart in Florida, which recent bagged on a similar project. (That’s how the federal money became available for Mississippi.) Here’s McCullough:

Kemper is the largest proposed addition to a public utility in Mississippi state history. Mississippi Power Company, a subsidiary of Southern Company, is the parent of the project, which will cost at least $2.4 billion. As with any public utility improvement, MPC’s ratepayers will bear the cost over time, as the company receives a return on its risk in investing. The company proposed a price cap of $3.2 billion in a March Commission filing. MPC serves nearly 190,000 rate payers in 23 southeastern Mississippi counties. ...

Kemper was awarded $270 million in DOE funds, which were left over from Southern Company’s proposed Orlando Gasification Project that was cancelled after Florida decided the state was not interested in more coal plants. The funds were transferred from Florida to Mississippi in Dec. 2008, after help from BGR Group, the Washington, D.C., lobbying firm founded by Barbour. ...

BGR prominently features the DOE funds award as a client success story on its website, saying the firm, “Negotiated successfully with the U.S. Department of Energy to approve the transfer of a clean coal power plant to a new location and approval to transfer the funds that had been appropriated for the project.”

Southern Company has been a BGR client since 1999, having spent a total of $2.6 million with the firm, according to federal lobbying disclosure documents. Southern is one of the largest U.S. electricity producers, serving 4.4 million customers in four states. Barbour lobbied for Southern Company until running for the governor’s office in 2003.

Now, here’s the kicker: That blurb on the BGR site? Well, it appears to have come down since McCullough’s story first ran, as she reports in this recent blog item: “BGR has since eliminated ‘Client Successes’ from its website. Click here to see the previous version and here to see the current version . You may also view a pdf of the old site here . BGR has also removed Southern Company from its client list.”

To which one can only say: Please, please let this man run for president! There isn’t a candidate out there who’ll be more satisfying to cover. Though, at this rate, there may be nothing left on that web site by the time Iowa rolls around...