A businessman in the public-private partnership of the proposed downtown development project is charged in federal court in Mississippi in connection with allegedly being part of a bid-rigging scheme with a past official of that state's department of education.
David Hunt, of Jackson, Tenn., and his team are proposing to build a hotel, parking garage, retail spaces and housing adjacent to the Rocky Mount Event Center, which is on the northeast side of downtown.
A City of Rocky Mount spokesman told the Telegram on Saturday that the municipality was not aware of the charges against Hunt.
Mayor Sandy Roberson, in response to a text message from the Telegram on Saturday, said he heard that day of a rumor about Hunt having been charged.
"I will say that if the matter is confirmed that we should attempt to understand whether similar circumstances are at play in Rocky Mount for transparency sake," Roberson said.
"I continue to desire for ongoing development in Rocky Mount as a whole and especially the downtown area," said Roberson, who was sworn into office in December.
Hunt, in a text message to a Telegram reporter on Saturday, said he cannot discuss the matter, but he issued a statement from his legal team.
The statement said, "We have reviewed the allegations against David Hunt. Unfortunately, these allegations against Mr. Hunt paint a picture that the facts do not support.
"Mr. Hunt did not violate the law. He is confident that as the facts of this case are revealed, he will be cleared of all charges — and his good name will be restored," the statement said.
Hunt does business as Hunt Services, which includes hotels and offices and retail center locations.
Hunt's list of businesses includes Doc Imaging, which that company's website shows is in the business of managing documents and providing printing services.
Mike Hurst, who is the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, issued a news release on Thursday saying that a grand jury, more than six months ago, indicted Hunt, 54. The indictment against Hunt was in connection with Doc Imaging.
Hurst also said that same grand jury indicted former Mississippi Department of Education official Cerissa Renfroe Neal, 45, and Joseph Kyles, 51, and Lambert Martin, 59, both of Memphis, Tenn.
Neal is identified in news reports in Mississippi as a former director of the office of educator quality with the Mississippi Department of Education.
That department operates under the direction and supervision of Mississippi's superintendent of education and implements a system-wide plan of performance, policy and direction for public education in Mississippi.
According to the news release from Hurst on Thursday:
The indictment states that from 2013-16, Neal would split contract requests from one contract into multiple, smaller contracts, this to avoid the amounts that would trigger a formal, competitive bidding process.
The indictment states that Neal would entertain and advocate for a bid for contracts from either Hunt, Kyles or Martin.
The indictment states that to meet the Mississippi Department of Education's requirement that such an informal bid have at least two competing vendor quotes, Neal would obtain bogus and inflated quotes, by herself and from Hunt, Kyles and Martin.
The indictment states that this was designed to make the intended conspirator’s business the lower bid — and to guarantee the awarding of the contract.
The indictment states that after the Mississippi Department of Education made the payment on the rigged contract to the conspirator-owned business, the winning bidder shared some of the money with conspirators, in return for their assistance in rigging the bid and winning the contract.
As a result, Neal received more than $42,000 directly or indirectly from her conspirators, the news release from Hurst said.
And Hunt, Kyles and Martin, through their respective businesses, got more than $650,000 from the State of Mississippi, including federal funds granted by the federal Department of Education that were supposed to go to Mississippi, the news release said.
Neal, Hunt, Kyles and Martin are charged in the indictment with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and with committing wire fraud.
Neal and Kyles also are charged in the indictment with committing money laundering and with committing bribery.
Hurst said in the news release, “Those who defraud the public’s trust will find themselves standing before a court of law to answer for their wrongs.
"Public corruption erodes faith in our democracy and decays the very soul of our form of government," he said. "Bringing to justice corrupt public officials has always been and remains a high priority of this office — and a personal mission of mine — and we will continue to pursue corruption wherever it may lead.”
Neal has pleaded not guilty and is free on $10,000 unsecured bond.
News media in Mississippi on Thursday reported that Neal's attorney, Lisa Ross, urged people to wait for the legal process to play out before making judgments.
“These are just allegations and they are one-sided allegations from the government,” Ross said. “There’s more than one side of the story and people should keep an open mind. Let's follow the evidence where it leads us.”
Hurst said that Hunt, Kyles and Martin are scheduled to appear in court on Sept. 10 for arraignment.
Generally, an arraignment is a formal hearing in court in which the accused person hears the charges being lodged against him or her.
The indictment was handed down on Feb. 25, but the document remained sealed until Aug. 26, when the court granted Hurst’s motion to unseal it.
Court records show that Hunt is free on a $10,000 unsecured bond.
Locally, the City of Rocky Mount has sent revised documents for the proposed downtown project to the state Local Government Commission staff to seek LGC approval of the proposed project.
The LGC is part of the state treasurer’s office in North Carolina and assists local governments in North Carolina in decision-making involving large financing projects.
The Telegram on Friday reported that Treasurer Dale Folwell, in a statement via a spokesman, said that the LGC staff is still reviewing all of the application information to ensure it is complete and that the LGC staff is not ready to make a recommendation to him.
Folwell told the Telegram that a determination about placing the application on a future agenda is going to be made once it is ready for his review.
The LGC's next meeting is on Oct. 6.
On Aug. 24, a majority of the Rocky Mount City Council voted for a resolution reaffirming certain findings relating to the proposed downtown project.
Councilman Lige Daughtridge voted no.
Just before the votes were cast, Daughtridge gave a statement expressing his opposition and Councilman Reuben Blackwell gave a statement expressing his support.
Just after the council majority’s action and just before the end of the council meeting, Councilman Andre Knight gave a statement expressing his support and briefly addressed Daughtridge in rebuttal.
The next day, the Nash County Travel and Tourism Board met briefly and the agenda included issuing a letter of concern to the LGC about the proposed project.
The travel and tourism board’s voting members, without any dissenting comments, approved sending the letter to the LGC. In effect, the action means the board is on record as not endorsing the proposed project.
The previous City Council, in a 5-2 vote on Aug. 8, 2019, approved a modified resolution adopting the development agreement and related documents.
The Telegram on March 6 reported the LGC staff had held off putting the matter on the LGC’s agenda because of reports the Office of the State Auditor was reviewing the finances and operations of the City of Rocky Mount.
State Auditor Beth Wood and her team released a report on May 15.
Wood and her team, in that report, found allegedly advantageous treatment of Knight, Blackwell and former Mayor David Combs and also found allegedly lavish spending by City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney.
The Telegram on Saturday sought a follow-up comment from Folwell about the proposed downtown project.
Folwell said over the phone that he became aware on Friday morning about the charges against Hunt.
Folwell said it makes him curious, not just about the application for the proposed downtown project before the LGC staff, but about the LGC having approved the construction of the event center.
The event center opened in October 2018 after being built at a cost of $48 million.
Additionally, Folwell said while everyone is innocent until proven guilty, when one looks at this in the context of the work that Wood has done, it throws up a high degree of caution going forward.
"I would be highly disappointed if the elected individuals in that community or this state would not be in favor of looking into this deeper," he said.