By Anita Lee/Sun Herald
BILOXI — The records arrived in October at the Sun Herald’s front desk in a brown business envelope.
The sender stenciled the address on the envelope rather than reveal any handwriting.
Inside, reporters discovered documents that indicated much was amiss at the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources.
Pursuit of answers to questions raised by those records, plus more information MDMR supplied in the fall under the Public Records Act, resulted in articles about millions in questionable spending under the agency’s executive director, Bill Walker.
The agency’s governing board fired Walker on Jan. 15. Commissioners said at the time they were unaware of all the agency’s activities and even uninformed on the amount of money that flows through the MDMR, having seen only annual state budgets of less than $20 million a year but not the $64 million to $111 million the agency received in federal and other funds in most recent years.
Both the State Auditor’s Office and the FBI have ramped up probes of misspending at the agency charged with protecting and enhancing the state’s coastal resources.
In February, the flow of information from the MDMR to the newspaper ceased.
The agency’s attorneys said financial records the newspaper wanted had been subpoenaed by the State Auditor’s Office and therefore were exempt from public disclosure. The Sun Herald and the MDMR are locked in a lawsuit over access to the records.
The MDMR attorneys, Joe Runnels and Sandy Chesnut of the state Attorney General’s Office, communicate with the newspaper only through its attorney, Henry Laird.
“When we have millions of dollars being spent over many years and questions of impropriety arise, the public is entitled to know how its government is run and how its tax dollars are being spent,” Laird said. “The only way to do that is to have access to the records, which prove how the money has been spent and prove how the government has been running.
“It keeps government honest.
“The criminal investigation has nothing to do with our public records request. If the DMR was subpoenaed for records, it should have made a copy to comply with our records request and maintained the integrity of its own records, rather than to give them to some other state or federal agency.”
Records the Sun Herald reviewed and reported about before being cut off revealed millions in spending is in question at the MDMR. Under Walker, appointed director in 2002, the agency initiated and funded a nonprofit land trust’s purchase of property that belonged to Walker’s son, interviews and public records have revealed.
A federal audit questioned a total of $12.6 million in spending for properties bought with Coastal Impact Assistance Funds the MDMR received from the federal government, which collects the money from oil companies for states impacted by offshore drilling. Included was the purchase of land from the parents of the agency’s CIAP manager, Tina Shumate, who has since resigned.
The agency also spent $1.4 million to equip and maintain recreational fishing boats owned by a private foundation Walker directed, ostensibly to support the MDMR. But records the Sun Herald reviewed showed no money flowing from the foundation to the MDMR. The newspaper also has reported the MDMR occasionally used the boats to take politicians and other influential people on fishing trips.
Walker’s Mississippi Marine Resources Foundation also collected thousands in fines and $115,162 from an oil company because of its stated support for the MDMR. Politicians, including Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, have begun returning campaign donations they received from the foundation because of the controversy now surrounding it.
The MDMR’s interim director, former state legislator Danny Guice, told the Sun Herald in February that he was unable to account for $4 million in state Tidelands funds the MDMR had received over a decade. A few days later, he said he had found $2.3 million of the money. He provided a list of fund names, but cut the pages in half so that no financial information was included. He now refuses to discuss the funds, again saying they are the subject of investigation.
“When an agency refuses to open public records, especially financial records, it’s a red flag that immediately triggers suspicion that there is something they want to hide from the public,” said Jeanni Atkins, a University of Mississippi journalism professor and executive director of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information.
“Whether or not bad judgment or misuse of funds had occurred, attempting to keep financial information secret the public is entitled to know raises questions about how money had been used. Questions the public deserves to have answered.”
The friction over access to public records is as old as government itself, said Kevin Goldberg, legal counsel to the American Society of News Editors.
“While we talk about the people’s right to know, governments operate primarily on a need to know basis, as in, ‘The public only needs to know this,’ ” Goldberg said. “That’s always been the eternal struggle with regard to open records and open meetings — that is the right to know vs. the need to know.”
The Sun Herald and the MDMR are scheduled for a hearing April 23 in Harrison County Chancery Court on the newspaper’s public records lawsuit.
Before an expedited court hearing in the case in January, the MDMR attorneys agreed the records in question were public and would be released. The attorneys even outlined in emails conditions under which the Sun Herald could review the paper records, boxed up in a room at the Bolton Office building in Biloxi, where the MDMR is headquartered and the auditor’s office has set up its review.
Because of the agreement, the expedited hearing was canceled. Now the attorneys blame the state auditor’s office for failure to release the records.
Goldberg said: “They’re following the play book that many government entities use, which is delay, delay, delay, obstruct, obstruct, obstruct. ‘Come after us if you dare and maybe we’ll turn over the records then.’
“Agencies know that there’s no real enforcement mechanism to compel them to produce records, no penalties that really affect them. So if they really want to hide something, they can take advantage of the text of the law to drag things out as long as they can and make it a very frustrating experience.”
Anita Lee, who covers local government and in-depth topics for the Sun Herald, is a member of the newspaper’s team reporting on the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources.
More information about transparency in government and the activities of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information can be found online at www.mcfoi.org.