Federal judge tosses $600,000 jury award to Jackson businessman

Judge Guirola AP
Judge Guirola AP
Judge Guirola

JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) — A federal judge has thrown out a $600,000 jury award to a businessman who said former Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. and the Jackson Redevelopment Authority thwarted his company’s effort to develop a downtown building.

The jury award was handed down in October in favor of Advanced Technology Building Solutions owner Don Hewitt.

Hewitt had argued in his lawsuit that one reason he was denied a JRA loan was that he wouldn’t use the consultants associated with Johnson on his project. Hewitt said JRA initially committed to providing about $5 million in financing for the project but the money never came.

U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola overturned the jury award on Friday, according to court documents. Guirola said regardless of Hewitt’s arguments, the Jackson City Council — not the mayor or his appointees — approves spending on projects.

“ATBS has attempted to classify its request to the City as a request for a contract in an attempt to demonstrate that the Mayor had final policymaking authority. However, the testimony and evidence presented at trial shows that ATBS did not request a contract, it requested funding for a project, which required authorization by the Jackson City Council,” Guirola wrote.

According to court documents, former JRA Executive Director Jason Brookins said in late March 2012, while the Deposit Guaranty Building project was being considered, Johnson expressed concerns to him about the city’s diminishing bonding capacity and growing debt obligations.

“The Deposit Guaranty Building project was one of the projects then under consideration affected by Mayor Johnson’s expressed reservations,” Brookins said.

City attorneys argued the issue of financing the Deposit Guaranty project was never brought to the city council so the city never had an opportunity to take adverse action against Hewitt’s company.

Hewitt said he planned to turn the old Deposit Guaranty Building into a hotel, but JRA convinced him to convert it to condos. He said the JRA didn’t want his project to compete with a proposed Convention Center hotel that Johnson was pushing.

Hewitt had put in a proposal to compete with the Texas-based company with which Johnson had been in talks for a hotel. Hewitt said in court papers that he refused to include in his hotel proposal the $5 million in fees that the other company included for consultants and other associates of Johnson.