$210,000 from DMR buys Walker's son's land

klnelson@sunherald.comDecember 15, 2012 

Steckler

BILOXI -- Bill Walker, the head of the state Department of Marine Resources, signed off on using public money under his control to buy a vacant lot in Gulf Hills that belonged to his son.

The sale price was $190,000, and the transaction was finalized in July 2011 with a $210,000 grant from the DMR.

According to documents obtained by the Sun Herald, Walker signed a voucher giving the money to the Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain, a nonprofit organization that works closely with the DMR. That organization, in turn, bought the property from Scott Walker, Bill Walker's son, and conserved it.

Judy Steckler, director of the Land Trust, confirmed the transaction last week.

This is not the first time a DMR official has used public money they control to fund the purchase of property from a family member. A federal audit report in September revealed Tina Shumate, head of the DMR's CIAP program, used federal money she oversees to buy her parents' home site in Pascagoula.

Since that federal report, the State Auditor's Office has begun an investigation of its own, but has not divulged the focus of the investigation. The department has seized documents from the DMR Bolton Building in Biloxi.

The purchase of Scott Walker's property is not believed to be part of the federal audit investigation.

Paperwork

The DMR is the lead agency for the spending of hundreds of millions of federal dollars that come to the state for the preservation, restoration and promotion of the Mississippi Coast.

As a state agency, it also handles millions in state money; is an arm of law enforcement on the coastal waterways and handled the distribution of millions in BP oil spill-cleanup money.

In the original DMR paperwork Walker signed June 10, 2011, the DMR gave the Land Trust a grant for $210,000 through its National Heritage Area office.

The grant said the money was to "provide for the development of green space, trails and restoration" and does not specifically mention a land purchase. On the grant worksheet, it states $100,000 is from a federal funding source and $110,000 is from a DMR source marked "other."

The federal source, Heritage Area funding, is money the DMR receives from the National Park Service. The $100,000 given to the land purchase equaled almost one-third of all the Heritage money Mississippi received last year, according to the Park Service.

However, legislation prohibits the use of Heritage money in Mississippi to buy land, Park Service officials confirmed last week.

Steckler said the federal agency paid a site visit to the property and brought that restriction to the attention of the DMR. And in June, almost a year after the purchase, state money was substituted for the Heritage funding, she said.

Steckler said she believes the Land Trust now has technically received Tidelands money for that portion of the purchase. Tidelands money is what the state receives for the lease of land subject to the ebb and flow of the tide and it comes through the Secretary of State's Office.

The $110,000 marked "other" was from "an internal account that indirect costs go into and are spent for a variety of purposes" at the DMR, according to an explanation from Bill Walker.

When asked if the DMR knew the $210,000 grant would be used to buy Scott Walker's property in Gulf Hills, Steckler said, "Yes. They had to know. We provided documentation."

She said the board for her organization also knew about the relationship between Bill Walker providing the money at the DMR and Scott Walker as the land seller.

"Because there was disclosure, the board voted for me to proceed and did not feel it was a conflict for us," Steckler said.

Land Trust purchase

Bill Walker said Friday since fiscal year 2011, "we've been partnering with the Land Trust to develop blueways," which means establishing and marking water trails.

The Land Trust has received multiple grants for that purpose, he said.

"That particular piece of property the Land Trust has been interested in a long time, long before Scott owned it," he said.

Bill Walker said the Land Trust "did an appraisal and paid Scott the appraised value that was significantly less than the amount he owed on the property." Bill Walker said Friday he thought the money used in the land buy came from Heritage funds.

Whether he substituted funding sources when the DMR learned it couldn't use Heritage money to buy land, Walker said he did not know, but the DMR has "in the past moved money from account to account."

When asked if he knew the money in the grant was used to buy his son's property, he said only, "I knew it was going to the Land Trust."

According to Jackson County records, Scott Walker and his then-wife bought the lot on March 14, 2008. The home on the lot had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Improvements were made to the land, a bulkhead and boat dock, and it was listed on the county land rolls, with the improvements, at a value of $118,000 in 2011.

It is a vacant lot on Bay Sweep Circle in Gulf Hills, an upscale subdivision in Jackson County just north of Ocean Springs, and sits on a body of water that drains into Fort Bayou.

Scott Walker is a Coast politician, successful businessman and entrepreneur.

He echoed Saturday what his father said. He said he put the property on the market, neighbors told him the Land Trust was interested in it, he contacted Steckler and he sold it to the Land Trust for a $60,000 loss.

The property

The property is almost an acre in a neighborhood. It has a well-built bulkhead, which takes away from the environmental value, Steckler said, but a biologist told her removing the bulkhead may be more detrimental to the environment. She said the lower part holds water and becomes soggy.

The Land Trust plans to eventually remove the concrete slab and plant trees along the water to enhance the ecological value.

Some of the neighbors like the idea of the lot being conserved for public use and some don't, Steckler said.

When the Land Trust buys property, "we have a procedure," she said. A check list has to show it's in the best interest of the public for the land to go into conservation. It must have public value. In this case, the property is near a blueway along Fort Bayou and Steckler said she discovered the marshes nearby are green heron habitat.

When land is purchased, she said a 12-member board reviews it and is informed about costs as they proceed.

"This is usually not something that happens quickly," she said.

However, with this purchase, she said, she saw the green herons in the area in March or April 2011 and by July, the land was appraised, negotiated, funded and purchased.

When asked if she approached the landowner for the purchase or he approached her, she said, "They approached me. They just wanted to sell." She said a Realtor was involved.

She said the Land Trust made the purchase based on an appraisal, and that the $20,000 difference between the grant amount and the purchase price was to cover the fees and other costs of acquiring the property.

John Fitzhugh, Sun Herald photographer, contributed to this report.

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