Connections: Neighbors, relatives and politicians land DMR jobs in South Mississippi

Neighbors, relatives and politicians land DMR jobs

Sun HeraldDecember 22, 2012 

The Department of Marine Resources has given jobs to Executive Director Bill Walker's neighbors, his daughter-in-law, local politicians and relatives of other employees, state records show.

Seven members of families from Bill Walker's secluded neighborhood in Ocean Springs have received a total of more than $680,000 since June 2009 from contract jobs at DMR.

"The question you need to be asking is, 'Is the state getting a day's work for a day's pay?' not whether people know me," Walker said. Contract workers cost less money than staff members, he said. They receive no health insurance, paid vacation days or other benefits. He said they are "at-will employees we can move around as we need."

The contract jobs are exempt from State Personnel Board oversight and state regulations that apply to annual contracts of $100,000 or more, a board spokesman said.

The jobs are not advertised to the general public, Walker confirmed. DMR's contract workers are paid for the hours they claim for work in various locations.

Some of the contract workers could not be found for interviews, and others were reluctant to talk about their jobs or would not discuss them with the Sun Herald.

The local politicians who work for DMR, however, did talk to the newspaper, as did one contract worker.

Greg Denyer, an Ocean Springs alderman and neighbor of Walker, described Walker as "a dear friend." Denyer has been a DMR contract worker doing specialty carpentry work since 2006. He was paid $37,991 for fiscal year 2012, state records show.

D'Iberville Mayor Rusty Quave said he was hired as a DMR contract employee after he told Bill Walker he was looking for work in 2010. A part-time mayor for almost 20 years, Quave was no longer running his convenience store.

"I was looking for a job," he said, "and asked Dr. Walker if anything came up, I would appreciate going to work. And they did have a contract job come up because of the oil spill. Believe me, this wasn't a political job where you sit in an office."

Quave started out working with fishermen after the BP oil spill, but now collects water samples, surveys reefs and does other work for $16.50 an hour. DMR paid him $29,254.50 in fiscal year 2012, which ended June 30.

In addition to the DMR contract work, he said he brokers shrimp for a local seafood company and sells mullet roe for a Florida exporter.

Relatives of DMR employees also work at the agency, although DMR directors say the hirings comply with the agency's nepotism policy. The nepotism policy prohibits employees from participating in the hiring process for, or supervising, immediate family members, which includes in-laws. It does not prohibit family members from working at DMR.

Walker said his daughter-in-law was hired by DMR Public Relations Director Lauren Thompson and works as a special projects officer. Trinity Walker, wife of Scott Walker, is paid $27,700 a year, according to state records.

Walker said Thompson also hired Samantha Hebert, the sister of Tina Shumate, DMR's director of coastal management. Hebert works under contract as a videographer, and has been paid $91,300 since October 2010, state records show. Hebert could not be reached at DMR to comment on her job.

When asked how to reach her sister, Shumate said, "She works for Dr. Walker, so you'd have to talk to him."

Shumate, recently scrutinized in a federal audit for using grant money for DMR's purchase of her parents' Pascagoula property, also has a son and brother-in-law who were contract workers. Shumate said she was not involved in hiring her son, who participated in a summer work program while in high school. She said Walker hired her brother-in-law, who was employed only a short time.

Most of Walker's neighbors hired under contract have worked at the spotted sea trout and red snapper fish hatchery at the Cedar Point campus of the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs.

Hatchery supervisors said the lab is glad to have help with carpentry, feeding fish and growing fish food.

DMR supplies 11 employees to Cedar Point, according to the lab -- five work full time and six work part time. The lab has no say in worker selection, doesn't participate in evaluations and doesn't have anything to do with paying workers.

"We didn't go through an interview process as we would do when we hire our own people," said Jeff Lotz, chairman of the USM Department of Coastal Sciences. "I certainly wouldn't have seen their resumes. DMR hired them."

Neighbors land jobs

Biloxi attorney Robert Byrd helped Walker set up the Marine Resources Foundation, which owns boats DMR leases and has paid to run. They are neighbors on Pine Hills Road.

State records show Byrd's two sons and his brother Paul Byrd were employed as contract workers in 2008. One son worked a couple of summers. The other son, Colin Byrd, still works for DMR.

The Sun Herald found Colin Byrd outside his Ocean Springs home Wednesday afternoon, washing down a charter boat after an offshore fishing trip.

He said the charter-boat service is his full-time business, but he works when needed for DMR. His job at DMR is to provide construction assistance for the sea trout program at Cedar Point. The contract job has paid him $46,200 for fiscal year 2012, state records show.

Byrd said he builds "specialty stuff," but he did not want to talk about his DMR work or how he got the job. He said his father did not get it for him.

Colin Byrd's uncle could not be located. He was not at the Lyman Fish Hatchery, where his contract says he performs various duties -- construction assistance, general grounds and facilities maintenance and fish stock work -- when the Sun Herald visited Tuesday afternoon and called Wednesday.

Paul Byrd was paid $86,520 in 2012, more than the $86,382 salary of DMR Chief of Staff Joe Ziegler Jr.

Byrd's wife, Cynthia Byrd, answered the door at their Ocean Springs home Wednesday. She said her husband would not talk to the Sun Herald.

"He's being found guilty by association," she said. "Contact human resources. Thanks for stopping by."

More neighbors land jobs

Before David Butler took a contract job with DMR, he owned a pet store in Biloxi that went out of business. He managed aquariums for casinos and then worked at an aquaculture company that raised tilapia in Escatawpa until Hurricane Katrina ended that job. He has lived across the street from Bill Walker and his wife for at least 20 years.

Bill Walker knew Butler was unemployed, Butler said.

"Dr. Walker said, 'Would you be interested in working in this program? We're looking for people to put out there,'" Butler said. "They asked me to do rotifers and I said I would, but at the time I didn't know what a rotifer was."

Butler, who has worked for DMR since 2006, said he grows rotifers, tiny organisms fed to young sea trout. His job description, on the state's transparency website, says he provides technical assistance to the sea trout program.

Butler, who works full time for DMR, said many weeks he has put in hours seven days a week. In fiscal year 2012, he was paid $47,670, with total pay since July 2010 of $111,735.

Butler said he loves his job and is good at it.

"I'm a specialist now," he said. He also said he sees nothing wrong with being hired by his neighbor.

"I'd rather have people work for me that I know," he said.

Butler's son Bryan Butler teaches science at Ocean Springs High School. He also has a DMR contract job at the lab during the summers, providing clerical, construction and general maintenance assistance, a state contract summary says.

'I needed a job'

Alderman Greg Denyer is a retired Ocean Springs school principal with skills as a cabinet maker. He said he has worked under contract with the DMR since 2006, mostly at the Cedar Point hatchery.

He said Social Security now limits him to $14,400, so he works only two or three days a week, usually as a supervisor.

Denyer said he didn't have to compete for the contract work, which has paid him $88,293 since July 2010.

"I've known Bill Walker over 35 years. He is a dear friend of mine, and has been and will be. I have not been involved in anything under the table with them," Denyer said. "I don't take political contributions, and I give my salary as alderman back to the city.

"I went to the DMR and told them I needed a job. They said, 'You need to probably talk to Bill Walker.' He said, 'Let me look around and see what we've got.'"

His daughter Libby Denyer, he said, was also a DMR contract worker, but has moved into a staff position with the agency, working part time at Cedar Point while she pursues an accounting degree. The state lists her position as administrative assistant, with an annual salary of $25,391.

When Libby Denyer was a contract worker, her contracts ran from April 7, 2009, to March 26, 2010, paying her a total of $32,395. Her job description says: "Contractor (Denyer) will provide assistance to the DMR in various offices within the agency. The contractor will be assigned to the human resources office and will be assigned work within various offices depending on the level of need and level of opportunity for contractor to gain experience from assigned duties."

Greg Denyer said he warned his daughter not to apply for a job at DMR.

"I steered her away from it," he said, "because I work there. 'People will say you got the job because your dad works there,' he said he told her. "She went on an interview. Despite the fact that her dad works there and knows Bill Walker, she continues to work there."

More with connections

Joe Ziegler's wife, Connie Ziegler, received $13,873 in 2011 as a DMR contract worker for the Gulf of Mexico Alliance. The stepson of former Commission on Marine Resources member Rick Hemba has been paid $112,500 over the last three fiscal years for part-time contract work on artificial reefs, marine patrol and boat maintenance.

After Hemba's term ended in 2004, he said, he went to Bill Walker and asked if there was a position at DMR for his stepson Harrison Pittman.

Hemba recalled Walker saying: "The best people that I hire are people who come recommended to me."

"He said, 'I have no problem with it,' so he hired Harrison as a contract worker."

Hemba said Pittman was an experienced boater when he was hired in 2009, and has since secured a commercial captain's license and become a certified diver.

Pittman works with the artificial reefs program, doing everything from diving at the reefs to cleaning boats.

Pittman, whose pay has ranged from $13,000 to $26,000 a year, is currently a full-time student at USM in Long Beach.

Hemba said he hopes his stepson gets a full-time position after graduation.

"I don't see any favoritism at all," Hemba said. "All I see is hiring quality people.

"A lot of people would think it was favoritism, but it's not."

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

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