The former top federal railroad regulator’s side gig as a public relations consultant for a Mississippi sheriff was more extensive than previously revealed, records obtained by POLITICO show.
Heath Hall apparently returned reporters’ phone calls, fielded a complaint about a bad link on a jail website and weighed in on coverage of a dog-fighting arrest during the nearly seven months he was the de facto head of the Federal Railroad Administration, according to emails provided by the government of Madison County, Miss. He also communicated with county officials about his firm’s PR work and regularly submitted invoices for its services — sending one such email just hours after a fatal Amtrak crash in Washington state.
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Hall took a leave of absence from the agency in January due to what the agency said was a family emergency, three months after telling Sheriff Randy Tucker by email that “I am just not happy here” and that the “bottom line is that I am a Mississippi boy.” He resigned from DOT Feb. 10 after POLITICO raised questions about whether he had continued running his PR business on the side.
Days later, Hall told his hometown newspaper that he hadn’t done any work for the sheriff while running the railroad agency — “not one second of one day, period.”
“I did not work one single time on anything related to my clients,” Hall told the Madison County Journal in a story published Feb. 14. “It’s really hard to moonlight when you’re working 12-14 hours a day.”
Hall told the Clarion Ledger that he resigned partly because “I did not not feel that the department should have to go through this POLITICO story. Absolutely none of it is true, absolutely guaranteed.”
Hall has not responded to POLITICO’s requests to discuss his tenure as acting administrator at the FRA, a $1.7 billion-a-year agency that lacked a permanent leader for more than a year while dealing with a rising trend of rail-related deaths. President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the agency, former Conrail President Ron Batory, was sworn in as administrator Wednesday.
Also on Wednesday, the Department of Transportation defended its decision to tap Hall for the FRA post last year, citing his past work as director of public affairs for former Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice and an internship he had at the railroad agency that appears to have occurred during the George H.W. Bush administration.
“Mr. Hall was required to comply with all required federal ethics and legal requirements,” a DOT spokesperson said. The department did not offer any reaction specifically to the newly released emails, which POLITICO obtained through a public records request to Madison County, Miss.
Besides his FRA internship, Hall had also worked early in his career for the deputy secretary’s office at DOT and served as an intern in the White House Office of Political Affairs during the first Bush administration, according to his now-defunct FRA bio page. He has referred to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who also worked at DOT during Bush’s presidency, as his former boss.
Hall, who runs a PR and consulting firm called Strategic Marketing Group LLC in Madison, pledged in his federal financial disclosure form last year that the business “will remain dormant during Federal service.” State records indicate his wife, Wendy, legally took over from him as the company’s “Manager, Member, President” in May.
But the new documents show that his involvement with the firm and its Mississippi clients didn’t end after he was sworn in as FRA’s deputy administrator on June 23. He was quickly named acting administrator; Batory wasn’t nominated for the post until July 10.
On June 30, a Friday morning, Hall responded swiftly after a Madison County official asked to correct a link on the county’s jail handbook site, one email shows. Hall dispatched web designer Addison Hall to handle the matter but continued participating in an email chain on the issue throughout the afternoon.
On Tuesday, Aug. 22, a county official forwarded Hall a voicemail from someone at Jackson, Miss., television station WAPT. Within a couple hours, Hall responded: “I got him.”
The next day, Hall responded in the evening to emails from Tucker’s administrative assistant about an inquiry from that station. He wrote that he had “returned calls to all of the stations with the exception of WAPT. The Sheriff has suggested in the past not to call him back because he always gets the stories wrong so I do not call him back.”
Hall also communicated with the sheriff during an email exchange that began on the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 25, about work he said he was doing related to an advertisement for the sheriff. “By the way, I want to come home,” Hall wrote, and proceeded to ask Tucker for advice on whether he should leave Washington.
An Oct. 24 email sent by Sandra Buckley, a public relations colleague brought on to help Hall’s PR company with Tucker’s account, said Hall was “managing this project.”
The evening of Tuesday, Nov. 7, Hall sent the sheriff an email regarding Madison County deputies’ arrests of four men in an alleged dog-fighting ring, noting “lots of good media on this.”
Hall also regularly emailed county officials about invoices for his firm’s services. He sent one such invoice the evening of Dec. 18, a few hours after an Amtrak train derailed in Washington state, killing three people and injuring dozens, in an accident that called attention to the slow progress in implementing a congressionally mandated crash prevention technology.
“Jeremy: Just getting it to you a little early,” he wrote. “Merry Christmas.”
Beyond the emails, as POLITICO has previously reported, Hall’s name appeared as a spokesman for the sheriff in at least two Mississippi media reports in August, and a former FRA employee said she had fielded at least three requests from a Mississippi television journalist seeking to speak with Hall last summer. The Madison County Journal reported this month that it also received a press release from him in July, something he told the newspaper he did not remember.
Hall also dealt with at least one Madison County official in his capacity as the railroad agency’s acting administrator on the rising problem of deadly accidents at rail crossings. In September, he sent an email from his FRA account to David Bishop, a member of the county’s elected board of supervisors, and to another FRA employee, whom he thanked for a readout of FRA’s contacts with Bishop and state and railroad officials related to a fatal May 2016 accident at a railroad crossing in Mississippi.
He later referred to that accident, which killed three people, during a Sept. 19 speech to the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials’ rail committee in Oakland, Calif., according to prepared remarks posted on FRA’s website. He noted that his “former crisis public relations firm was called out” to the crash, adding: “It was at that moment that I decided that I was going to lend my voice in reversing this trend.”
Still, he soon made it clear he was ready to return to Mississippi.
“I just got back into Mississippi yesterday — so very happy to be home,” he wrote to Tucker’s deputy on Jan. 22, attaching another invoice.
He told the Madison County Journal that “I will not miss Washington D.C.”
“It is a ‘gotcha’ community that takes great faith in ruining someone’s reputation and they do it as a sport,” he said.