The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources has awarded contracts worth more than $600,000 and has paid an additional $116,000 to a firm owned by the Madison County tax assessor and his wife, possibly skirting federal and state laws that require competitive bidding, a preliminary audit by the U.S. Interior Department's Office of Inspector General says.
The federal audit said DMR gave inadequate justification for not seeking competitive bids that would assure the government gets the best deals for goods and services.
When DMR sought a consultant to help write the state's Coastal Impact Assistance Plan, administer the federal CIAP grants and manage CIAP land acquisitions, it awarded the work to Barber & Mann Inc. of Ridgeland, a city north of Jackson, without seeking bids. The company was founded in 2002 by Madison County Tax Assessor Gerald Barber and his wife, Elizabeth Rooks-Barber.
In the July audit report, the Inspector General's Office said Barber & Mann wasn't the only firm able to do the work, which was the justification DMR gave for not seeking bids.
A few months later, the Inspector General's Office issued another report from the audit, questioning the land acquisitions managed by Barber & Mann. It said the DMR used CIAP money to buy property in Pascagoula that belonged to the parents of Tina Shumate, who is in charge of CIAP.
Calling this a potential conflict of interest, the re
port also says the transaction was based on an appraisal that lacked adequate investigation and history of the property's value -- and was not supported by verifiable data.
The Inspector General's Office has turned the preliminary audits over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with recommendations for fixing the problems. Neither agency will comment on the status of the audits.
'I'm not the only person'
According to the July report, DMR said it went with Barber & Mann because its vice president, Elizabeth Rooks-Barber, was the only person with the "relevant experience" needed to manage the CIAP program for DMR. The Barber & Mann company profile says Rooks-Barber is a certified wildlife biologist who once was executive director of the Mississippi Wildlife Federation and was executive director of the American Lung Association of Mississippi. She specializes in conservation planning, grant writing, grant management and wildlife consulting.
But, the audit report said, Rooks-Barber was not the only person qualified to administer the CIAP program, which distributes federal money from offshore energy leases to six states affected by offshore drilling. According to the report, she told the auditors, "I'm not the only person who could have done this not at all."
Can't be certain
Because DMR officials did not solicit price quotations or bids, they could not state with certainty Rooks-Barber was the only one who could do the work, the auditors said. "In light of the influx of Federal Grant Funds in the Gulf region following Hurricane Katrina, many other individuals or firms could have relevant experience in developing a state plan and assisting with grant applications," they wrote.
Rooks-Barber said she started work in 2003 on the previous CIAP program, administered then by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state Department of Environmental Quality. When the program began under DMR, she said, "They wanted to use a lot of the elements and some of the framework that DEQ had set up in their program."
"The one person who worked on it consistently was me," she said, adding DMR sought her assistance to expand the smaller program run by DEQ. "I'm proud of my work at DMR."
Rooks-Barber said she was aware of the audit but would not talk about it other than to say she had no control over the way she was hired.
She said her current $99,000 contract, which was not part of the audit report, was approved by the state Personal Service Contract Review Board.
"Those are probably questions you should direct to DMR or just the Fish and Wildlife Service," she said of the contracts covered by the audit.
The audit pointed out an environmental consulting firm in Harrison County was qualified because it had administered the 2001 CIAP grant program.
The audit examined five no-bid contracts between DMR and Barber & Mann that paid the firm a total of $605,791 from 2006 through 2012. Two of the contracts were amended, which the auditors suggested was an attempt to keep each under $50,000. By doing so, DMR avoided state rules requiring agencies to solicit competitive written proposals for personal-services contracts of between $50,001 and $100,000.
In a third case, the contract shows, DMR Executive Director Bill Walker in 2009 signed a $97,000 contract with Barber & Mann, stipulating it could be renewed each year through June 2014. The audit found Barber & Mann had been paid $291,000 under that contract by June 2012. If the total contract value had been listed at $100,000 or more, the Review Board would have required a bidding process, as well as board approval of the contract.
In addition, the audit found DMR also avoided state rules by making 60 payments directly to Barber & Mann rather than including those expenses in the contracts.
Those payments totaled $117,742.
The audit said: "By underestimating the contract value, using different procurement methods rather than issuing a single contract, and splitting similar purchases into several transactions, DMR avoided the $100,000 threshold that would have triggered review by PSCRB."
This preliminary audit is one of several in which the Inspector General's Office questions DMR's use of federal money.
Another in the group of preliminary audits questioned DMR land buys and pointed out problems with appraisals Barber & Mann oversaw, at least one of which set the value at more than 1,600 percent -- 16 times higher than the county tax appraisals.
In the audit findings, the federal government looked at 14 Coast properties bought this year by DMR and four "subgrantees" -- cities or nonprofits that received CIAP money through DMR. The audit questioned $12.6 million of the $14 million spent.
In a previous interview, Walker called the audits routine, saying he couldn't comment on specifics. "We're not supposed to be talking about it," he said.
Since the federal audits, the state Auditor's Office has begun its own investigation, seizing DMR records in October. Gov. Phil Bryant has instructed DMR to cooperate.