BILOXI -- The Commission on Marine Resources voted unanimously Friday evening to suspend Department of Marine Resources Executive Director Bill Walker indefinitely without pay, pending the outcome of an investigation by the FBI and State Auditor's Office.
Commission Chairman Vernon Asper said the Federal Bureau of Investigation has joined a state auditor's probe of DMR spending. Asper said the investigation could be completed as early as February.
Walker sat, expressionless, on the dais with the five commissioners while his suspension was announced. Walker was briefly called in to a three-hour closed session, where DMR attorneys Sandy Chesnut and Joseph Runnels reviewed emails, contracts, receipts and other documents with the commissioners, Asper said.
Some of the documents they reviewed, Asper said, were first reported on in the Sun Herald, including an oil company check made out to the Mississippi Marine Resources Foundation, a nonprofit Walker also directs.
DMR records show that, from 2000 to 2009, oil companies donated rigs to the DMR, along with more than $7 million the agency could use to maintain the rigs as fishing reefs.
One donation was different. When Chevron U.S.A. Inc. donated a rig to DMR in October 2009, the oil company's $115,000 check for maintenance was made out to Walker's foundation.
Asper said commissioners reviewed the paperwork associated with that donation, first reported in the Sun Herald. If Chevron also wrote a check to DMR, as Walker once indicated, that check has not been found, Asper said.
He said the commissioners are frustrated because they were unaware of what, if anything, has been going on in the agency.
After Chesnut announced the decision to suspend Walker, Asper said;
"We considered a reasonable amount of information regarding the allegations that have been made against the agency and, after careful consideration, we feel that this decision is warranted, that we need more investigation, and that the agency would be best served if Dr. Walker stepped aside and allowed the investigation to proceed.
"We all very much appreciate the work that Dr. Walker has done. We think the world of him. We think he's just done a fantastic job with the agency and we hope that in a few weeks we are back here announcing that we were wrong and that there really was no wrongdoing whatsoever within the agency. But that's something that will come out in the investigation."
Walker has led the state agency since 2002, overseeing the use of state Tidelands funding, an array of federal grant resources and millions in BP cleanup money. It's the only state agency based on the Coast.
DMR is supposed to spend Coastal Impact Assistance Program money Mississippi receives from the federal government for conservation measures.
The auditor's office has not commented on its investigation. Preliminary reports from a federal audit question DMR practices, including the lack of bids for work and high appraisals for land purchases.
The DMR's head of the CIAP program also used federal money she oversees to buy her parents' property in Pascagoula for the DMR, and federal money was used to buy property Walker's son owned in the Gulf Hills subdivision north of Ocean Springs.
The CMR had other questions about Walker's Marine Resources Foundation. The foundation owns two recreational fishing boats, which the DMR leases. DMR has spent more than $1.46 million of public money to repair, upgrade and insure the boats.
The agency also has taken state legislators and other influential folk on state-sponsored fishing trips.
After the meeting adjourned, Walker told the Sun Herald: "I don't have a whole lot to say about this. They made this decision. I'll respect it and deal with this the best I can."
"I'll work with them through this process. And we'll see where it goes."
He said he will take the next few weeks to "think about what I'll do about retirement."
Walker declined to comment about his foundation.
For the first two hours of the executive session, Walker's wife, Sharon, and son, Scott, sat in a Land Rover SUV in the parking lot of the Bolton Building, where the DMR offices are.
Scott Walker said, "We're here waiting, but didn't want to bother going in there."
Gov. Phil Bryant's office responded to Bill Walker's suspension with a short statement. "The Governor supports the decision of the commission and continues to instruct the agency to cooperate with authorities and be transparent throughout the investigative process," it said.
Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network, said late Friday, "We've been concerned since we had heard there was an audit and that there may have been some misuse of funds.
"And we have been concerned for awhile about the expenditure of CIAP funds in Mississippi on projects we felt might not have been appropriate."
Michael Newsom, Sun Herald staff writer, contributed to this report.