CHARLIE MITCHELL: Score a victory for Coast in public information case

CHARLIE MITCHELL

CHARLIE MITCHELL

On Nov. 12, 2012, Karen Nelson walked into the office of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources in Biloxi and asked for some information.

Any person could have received the same information. That was not an issue.

Nonetheless, an amateurish game of hot potato ensued. It took a federal judge and a courageous state judge – who issued her ruling May 27 – to say enough is enough.

The state judge, Chancellor Jennifer Schloegel, described the actions of state Auditor Stacy Pickering and Attorney General Jim Hood with a wonderful four-syllable word: “contumacious.” She also reminded them “they are charged with enforcing the law, not subverting it.” She fined them and six others (lawyers and state officials) $100 each (the legal maximum) for their contumaciousness and ordered them to pay almost $38,000 in legal fees incurred by Ms. Nelson’s employer, The Sun Herald newspaper.

It would have been difficult not to notice some of the unusual expenditures of the DMR, so the newspaper – as any good newspaper would – embarked on months of reporting. As of today, there have been assorted resignations, indictments, guilty pleas and a smattering of folks are still awaiting trial, accused of feeding too copiously at the public trough.

Nelson’s request was to see financial records of one component of the DMR.

But the wagons were circled.

And the newspaper had to sue.

An agreement of sorts ended the matter for a while when the DMR agreed to turn over all the records “in its possession.” But unknown to the judge or the newspaper’s attorney was that Pickering had issued a subpoena to DMR for the records, worded almost exactly as the newspaper’s request, and they were no longer “in its possession.”

In direct violation of one Schloegel order, boxes of records disappeared during the night, spirited from Biloxi to Jackson.

Schloegel said Assistant U.S. Attorney Roger Dowdy, who had subpoenaed the records from state custody to federal custody, tried to call her while she was preparing to issue a ruling, apparently to try to sway her.

When Schloegel was initially considering finding Pickering in contempt, she says Attorney General Hood Jim Hood advised her not to issue her contempt ruling until she found out whether the state Supreme Court would reverse her. (An interesting proposition, to say the least.) To paraphrase, “Forget the law; think this is not going to look good for you.”

Later, a federal judge, U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett, was called on to make some rulings. His opinion had the tone of astonishment – that anyone would argue public records magically become secret just because a prosecutor might use them as evidence.

There may be appeals of Schloegel’s ruling, but this case laid bare the lengths to which public officials went – a buddy system – to keep from complying with a very clear state law when they didn’t want to.

Hats off to The Sun Herald for consistent work in the best traditions of journalism.

Hats off to Chancellor Jennifer Schloegel for declining a membership in the good old boys club, for enforcing the law as written and for saying it best:

“Defendant Auditor and its counsel acted in bad faith by issuing state grand jury subpoenas in a patently obvious attempt to circumvent the Public Records Act and to hide the public records of the DMR.”

Incidentally, information in the records in no way kept any prosecutor from doing his or her job in bringing criminal charges against those accused of mishandling (or stealing) public funds.

It was all about skirting the law to save face.

This time, though, the people won.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail cmitchell43@yahoo.com. He is assistant dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi.