By MICHAEL NEWSOM,The Sun Herald
BILOXI, Miss. (AP) — A photo on Facebook shows a group of Mississippi legislators and other influential folks grinning with the fish they caught from a boat the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources charters.
Another photo shows a separate trip some have called a birthday excursion for Jackson County Board of Supervisors President John McKay’s grandson and his friends — a characterization the official says isn’t correct. The photos of the two trips surfaced as the agency is already caught up in controversy because of federal and state investigations of its spending practices.
State Senate Ports and Marine Resources Chairman Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, was on the outing for lawmakers and other officials in June. Wiggins said he didn’t catch many fish, but he was able to meet with other officials, which he said was valuable to him, as at the time he’d been chairing the committee for only a few months.
He bristled at the notion the excursion might have been a way for the agency to win favors from powerful lawmakers.
“If the DMR or anybody thinks that a fishing trip such as that is going to influence me, then they are sorely mistaken,” Wiggins said.
McKay, Wiggins and the other officials on the June trip say nothing untoward was going on. McKay said he doesn’t feel the officials were given any special access to the boats because of their positions in government, and that all guidelines given to him by MDMR officials were followed on the two trips he took.
MDMR officials have defended the use of their boats, as well as charter boats, to take officials out as a way of teaching lawmakers and the public more about what they do, which they say has benefits. They say on some trips, fish are also tagged and released and samples are taken.
“We have taken legislators and other individuals who can be helpful to our departmental programs out to our islands and reefs,” MDMR executive director Bill Walker said an emailed statement, “to allow them to better understand the importance of continuing to create these habitats and to populate them with fish produced through aquaculture partnerships, and to help them understand the necessity of conserving and protecting these critical habitats which are important to the economic sustainability of our charter fleet, our commercial fishermen, and our recreational fishermen.”
Walker said his group has used charter boats when foundation-owned boats were not available, but so far the agency has not answered questions asked by the newspaper about expenses for the fishing trips.
Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration records show DMR has paid Silver Dollar II Inc. — the Biloxi charter company it used for the June legislative trip — $21,715 since 2009, some $7,560 of it coming since July 1. Several of the payments came in increments of about $2,600. Dustin Trochesset, a captain with Silver Dollar, said the company has done business with MDMR for several years, like other local charter companies.
As for those on the June excursion, some said they were unaware of the MDMR’s role in the trip. Wiggins said, at the time, he was unclear how the trip was being paid for, but he thought it was a private charter. Wiggins and others said McKay invited them.
The county supervisor and Bill Walker go way back. When McKay was Ocean Springs’ recreational director in 1971, Walker was president of the city’s recreational board.
“(Walker) has always been straightforward and honest in every situation I ever knew him to be in,” McKay said. “Whenever we casually were talking about this boat, and he said, ‘Hey, if you ever have an opportunity to use it, let me know.’ I didn’t question what the criteria was, who had been asked (to use the boat), who hadn’t been asked, any of those questions, because I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it because I trust Bill Walker to this day, until he’s proved otherwise.”
Among those on the Silver Dollar III that day were Sen. Tony Smith, R-Picayune; Senate Highways and Transportation Chairman Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland; state House Ports, Harbors and Airports Chairman Alex Monsour, R-Vicksburg; and McKay. Parks McNabb, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ director of legislative affairs, was also aboard, but a spokeswoman for Reeves’ office said McNabb was invited by Jackson County officials, and wasn’t aware of MDMR’s involvement. Jackson County Chancery Clerk Terry Miller and County Comptroller Joshua Eldridge were also on the trip.
Monsour drove down to the coast on the morning of the outing, which lasted about half a day. He had been told going into the trip the group would use a MDMR boat, and county supervisors and lawmakers were going to be there. The politicians and others aboard the boat were fed sandwiches and boiled shrimp, he said.
Monsour said the trip was a productive one, as he’s not able to meet with Coast folks very often, even though many port and harbor issues his committee deals with involve South Mississippi.
“Being the chairman, I needed to go down there and visit with the county supervisors on some issues and touch base with the guys down there,” Monsour said. “I don’t get a chance to visit with the local delegation down there like everybody else does on a day-to-day basis, so when I do get to meet with them, I do.”
The August birthday trip on the Silver Dollar charter boat wasn’t actually that, McKay said. The trip had been scheduled several months before, but McKay’s mother died in July. McKay had to call Bill Walker and tell him he wouldn’t be able to make the trip planned for himself, his grandson and friends. He said later Bill Walker told him there would be an opening on the boat, which happened to be near McKay’s grandson’s birthday. About 10 children, many of whom were McKay’s grandson’s friends, went out that day.
“It happened to be within one week of my grandson’s birthday,” McKay said. “We just casually called it (a birthday trip), even though we didn’t have a cake, there was no presents, wasn’t anything. It was just word of mouth that’s what it was. It just happened to fall that way and wasn’t anything planned.
“If you look at it from the standpoint of offering kids an opportunity they’ve never had before, it was money well spent,” McKay said of the half-day kids’ trip. “If we were all rich, rich people, and had our own big boats that would go wherever you wanted to go, then it’s probably a waste of money.”
Information from: The Sun Herald, http://www.sunherald.com