BILOXI -- A photo on Facebook shows a group of Mississippi legislators and other influential folks grinning with the fish they caught from a boat the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources charters.
Another photo shows a separate trip some have called a birthday excursion for Jackson County Board of Supervisors President John McKay's grandson and his friends -- a characterization the official says isn't correct. The photos of the two trips surfaced as the agency is already caught up in controversy because of federal and state investigations of its spending practices.
State Senate Ports and Marine Resources Chairman Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, was on the outing for lawmakers and other officials in June. Wiggins said he didn't catch many fish, but he was able to meet with other officials, which he said was valuable to him, as at the time he'd been chairing the committee for only a few months.
He bristled at the notion the excursion might have been a way for the agency to win favors from powerful lawmakers.
"If the DMR or anybody thinks that
a fishing trip such as that is going to influence me, then they are sorely mistaken," Wiggins said.
McKay, Wiggins and the other officials on the June trip say nothing untoward was going on. McKay said he doesn't feel the officials were given any special access to the boats because of their positions in government, and that all guidelines given to him by DMR officials were followed on the two trips he took.
Question about DMR
The trips, which came as a result of McKay having access to DMR chartered boats, have come to light amid recent investigations and public questions about the DMR's spending practices. A review is being conducted by the Investigative Audit Division of the State Auditor's Office and a probe by the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Interior Department. The investigations, which the Sun Herald reported in October, are looking at how DMR spends its funds, including money the federal government provides through the Coastal Impact Assistance Program for conservation measures.
The Sun Herald has reported on preliminary federal audit reports that raise questions about a lack of bids for some DMR work; appraisals the agency used for land purchases; the head of the DMR's CIAP program using money she oversees to buy her parents' property in Pascagoula for the DMR; and the DMR's use of federal money to buy property in Gulf Hills subdivision owned by the executive director's son; among other issues.
The activities of a foundation DMR Executive Director Bill Walker directs called the Marine Resources Foundation have also been featured in a Sun Herald article. Some wonder if there's a need for the foundation's two recreational fishing boats, a 36-foot Topaz sport fisherman and a 42-foot Californian convertible, which the DMR has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars repairing and upgrading.
DMR defends trips
DMR officials have defended the use of their boats, as well as charter boats, to take officials out as a way of teaching lawmakers and the public more about what they do, which they say has benefits. They say on some trips, fish are also tagged and released and samples are taken. Walker sent a statement through his media relations office when the Sun Herald contacted him for an interview on the subject of chartered trips.
"We have taken legislators and other individuals who can be helpful to our departmental programs out to our islands and reefs," his statement said, "to allow them to better understand the importance of continuing to create these habitats and to populate them with fish produced through aquaculture partnerships, and to help them understand the necessity of conserving and protecting these critical habitats which are important to the economic sustainability of our charter fleet, our commercial fishermen, and our recreational fishermen."
Walker said his group has used charter boats when foundation-owned boats were not available, but so far the agency has not answered questions asked by the newspaper about expenses for the fishing trips.
Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration records show DMR has paid Silver Dollar II Inc. -- the Biloxi charter company it used for the June legislative trip -- $21,715 since 2009, some $7,560 of it coming since July 1. Several of the payments came in increments of about $2,600. Dustin Trochesset, a captain with Silver Dollar, said the company has done business with DMR for several years, like other local charter companies, but at this point they would have no further comment because of the ongoing investigation.
McKay, Walker go way back
As for those on the June excursion, some said they were unaware of the DMR's role in the trip. Wiggins said, at the time, he was unclear how the trip was being paid for, but he thought it was a private charter. Wiggins and others said McKay invited them.
The county supervisor and Bill Walker go way back. When McKay was Ocean Springs' recreational director in 1971, Walker was president of the city's recreational board.
"(Walker) has always been straightforward and honest in every situation I ever knew him to be in," McKay said. "Whenever we casually were talking about this boat, and he said, 'Hey, if you ever have an opportunity to use it, let me know.' I didn't question what the criteria was, who had been asked (to use the boat), who hadn't been asked, any of those questions, because I didn't think there was anything wrong with it because I trust Bill Walker to this day, until he's proved otherwise."
Among those on the Silver Dollar III that day were Sen. Tony Smith, R-Picayune; Senate Highways and Transportation Chair Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland; state House Ports, Harbors and Airports Chair Alex Monsour, R-Vicksburg; and McKay. Parks McNabb, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves' director of legislative affairs, was also aboard, but a spokeswoman for Reeves' office said McNabb was invited by Jackson County officials, and wasn't aware of DMR's involvement. Jackson County Chancery Clerk Terry Miller and County Comptroller Joshua Eldridge were also on the trip.
Miller said: "I was invited on a fishing trip by the DMR. It involved meeting and networking with local officials and state legislators. It was an opportunity to network and discuss county affairs."
Scott Walker, Bill Walker's son, was also aboard. He said he wasn't acting on behalf of DMR or in any official capacity, rather just hanging around with the group, which included friends of his. Scott Walker said he believes trips like the one the lawmakers took, on which they saw the fish havens created around the reefs, have many benefits.
"It was good to show the guys from Jackson what the program is and what funding has done for the reef program," Scott Walker said. "I know the same trips are made a lot of times when these fish are spawned and they'll take thousands (of fish) out through the reef program to do a release."
Scott Walker, who said he's not much of a fishermen, caught a few on the trip. He said some of the smaller fish caught were tagged and released, and some of the legal-sized fish were brought back to the dock. The catch was lined up for the photo, which wound up on the Silver Dollar Facebook page.
"To show the state House and Senate members what goes on out there is such a positive thing for the Coast," Scott Walker said.
Monsour drove down to the Coast on the morning of the outing, which lasted about half a day. He had been told going into the trip the group would use a DMR boat, and county supervisors and lawmakers were going to be there. The politicians and others aboard the boat were fed sandwiches and boiled shrimp, he said.
Monsour didn't have much fishing luck, catching only two fish. He didn't keep any because he had to drive back to Vicksburg that day, but he said others on the trip took some of their catch home. He said the trip was a productive one, as he's not able to meet with Coast folks very often, even though many port and harbor issues his committee deals with involve South Mississippi.
"Being the chairman, I needed to go down there and visit with the county supervisors on some issues and touch base with the guys down there," Monsour said. "I don't get a chance to visit with the local delegation down there like everybody else does on a day-to-day basis, so when I do get to meet with them, I do."
When asked, Smith, who caught fish on the trip, said he wasn't aware the trip was on a DMR-chartered boat. McKay invited him, he said.
"I was invited to come and I didn't know who was paying for it," Smith said. "I didn't ask."
Supervisor defends trips
McKay said he used the June trip to talk about transportation issues with legislative officials on those committees, including railway crossing reconfigurations in Jackson County. McKay said he believes he wasn't being given any special treatment on either trip he took.
"Whenever you go through (Bill Walker), you assume -- I didn't ask, but I assumed -- DMR had this and did it on a regular basis, and I was led to believe they did it on a regular basis for a lot of folks," McKay said.
" I don't have any idea how it was funded. I didn't ask. I was just offered the trip to take some kids out and take the legislators out, so I took advantage of it," McKay said.
The August birthday trip on the Silver Dollar charter boat wasn't actually that, McKay said. The trip had been scheduled several months before, but McKay's mother died in July. McKay had to call Bill Walker and tell him he wouldn't be able to make the trip planned for himself, his grandson and friends. He said later Bill Walker told him there would be an opening on the boat, which happened to be near McKay's grandson's birthday. About 10 children, many of whom were McKay's grandson's friends, went out that day.
"It happened to be within one week of my grandson's birthday," McKay said. "We just casually called it (a birthday trip), even though we didn't have a cake, there was no presents, wasn't anything. It was just word of mouth that's what it was. It just happened to fall that way and wasn't anything planned."
McKay said the trip offered the kids an opportunity they'd never had and that some of them might not have again.
"If you look at it from the standpoint of offering kids an opportunity they've never had before, it was money well spent," McKay said of the half-day kids' trip. "If we were all rich, rich people, and had our own big boats that would go wherever you wanted to go, then it's probably a waste of money."