BILOXI -- The Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources met for nearly two-and-a-half hours behind closed doors Tuesday to discuss issues raised in federal and state probes of the Department of Marine Resources, but ultimately took no action.
The commissioners, who oversee DMR, said they have been in the dark about some aspects of the department. After the two-hour, 23-minute closed-door meeting, they came back to adjourn, saying they didn't have enough information to make any decisions yet. They said they are awaiting results from the state and federal probes of DMR spending.
"We'd have to find some indication there's been some wrongdoing," CMR Chairman Vernon Asper said. "Right now, it's a lot of accusations. Right now, we have a report from the (federal Coastal Impact Assistance Program) audit, but we don't have anything from the investigation into the other issues. Until we have some hard information, it's hard to support the rumors and take action until we have some firm justification."
The Investigative Audit Division of the State Auditor's Office and a review by the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Interior Department are ongoing. The probes, which the Sun Herald reported in October, are looking at how DMR spends its funds and money the federal government provides through CIAP for conservation measures.
The Sun Herald has reported on preliminary federal audit reports that bring into question a lack of bids for DMR work, appraisals the agency used for land purchases, the head of the DMR's CIAP program using the funds she oversees to buy her parents' property in Pascagoula, the DMR's use of federal money to buy the executive director's son's property in Gulf Hills subdivision and the activities of a foundation DMR Executive Director Bill Walker directs called the Marine Resources Foundation.
Some commissioners said they were aware of the foundation, but not very familiar with its day-to-day activities. Questions have been raised as to whether there's a need for the foundation's two recreational fishing boats, a 36-foot Topaz sport fisherman and a 42-foot Californian convertible, that the DMR has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars repairing and upgrading.
While behind closed doors, commissioners combed over Sun Herald stories, asking questions about specific issues detailed in the articles. Walker was excluded from the closed-door meeting, but commissioners asked questions of him about issues raised in the reports.
Commissioner Steve Bosarge said the board is "in investigative mode" at this point, but he declined to offer many comments about the situation.
"There's no need in speculating," Bosarge said. "In due time, I guess we'll all know."
Walker didn't respond by deadline Tuesday to Sun Herald calls seeking comment.
Vice Chairman Jimmy Taylor said after the meeting the commission isn't as involved in the day-to-day operations of DMR; rather the executive director oversees those matters. He said he's waiting on the audits to be complete before he makes any judgements.
"What's been in the paper is of great concern, but we don't have all the facts to make a decision," Taylor said.
Commissioner Shelby Drummond said he was also taking a wait-and-see approach to the issues, but like other commissioners, spoke highly of Walker's leadership.
"I couldn't make a judgement right now, even on the executive director," Drummond said. "As far as I know, he is probably the most honest person that I've ever met. I seriously doubt he ever did anything wrong. If he did something wrong, he surely didn't know about it."
Karen Nelson, staff writer, contributed to this report