Though the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources is the focus of ongoing state and federal probes, its recently suspended chief appointed a former state lawmaker as a deputy director in November and the new employee hopes he'll be permanently appointed to replace his boss.
The Commission on Marie Resources suspended DMR Executive Director Bill Walker indefinitely without pay Friday while the investigation continues. Walker, who hired Danny Guice as deputy director, plans to retire between now and June, and Guice is in charge during Walker's suspension.
Guice, a former state lawmaker who represented Ocean Springs, is interested in a permanent promotion.
"I am (interested in the job)," Guice said. "If I were not, I don't believe I would have come in. Since I've been here, it's pretty apparent I'm here for a reason.
"And that's a good thing."
Guice said he'll make only a few tweaks to the DMR if he's chosen to lead it. He also believes the agency could be out from under the cloud of a federal audit as early as February.
But some worry about essentially allowing Guice to be tapped as the DMR boss-in-waiting. State law requires the Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources to give the governor three qualified nominees to choose from, and the appointment is confirmed by the Senate. In addition to rules on appointment, the law specifies the DMR executive director "shall be knowledgeable and experienced in marine resources management."
Others, including conservationists and the head of the state Senate committee that oversees DMR issues and handles the appointment, wonder if a clean break from the current regime isn't the best answer.
DMR under scrutiny
The Investigative Audit Division of the State Auditor's Office is conducting a review, which the Federal Bureau of Investigation has joined, and the Inspector General for the U.S. Interior Department is auditing the agency.
The Sun Herald has reported on preliminary reports from the federal audit, which raises questions about, among other issues, a lack of bids for some DMR work; appraisals the agency used for land purchases; the head of the DMR's Coastal Impact Assistance Program using money she oversees to buy her parents' property for the DMR; and the DMR's use of federal money to buy property owned by Walker's son.
The Sun Herald has also written about an organization Walker directs called the Marine Resources Foundation, which owns two recreational fishing boats -- a 36-foot Topaz sport fisherman and a 42-foot Californian convertible. Some have questioned spending hundreds of thousands of public dollars repairing and upgrading the boats. The fishing trips DMR has taken lawmakers and other influential folk on also have been questioned.
Longtime lawmaker steps in
Guice, 59, served on the state Parole Board from 2008 until he resigned Nov. 9 and joined DMR as deputy director the next day.
He served in the Mississippi House of Representatives from 1984 to 2008 and was a member of the Marine Resources Committee. He also chaired the House Banking and Financial Services Committee, among other assignments. From 1980 until 1984, he was a Justice Court judge in Jackson County. He holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Mississippi and a master's degree from the University of Southern Mississippi.
He was the assistant state director of Associated General Contractors -- a trade association that, according to its website, represents more than 600 construction firms in the state -- for more than 20 years.
His Parole Board appointment had caused some controversy because of a $5,000 contribution Guice made to then-Gov. Haley Barbour's re-election campaign. According to a state law in effect at the time, the contribution would have barred Barbour from appointing Guice, but that law was repealed shortly before Guice was appointed. Guice didn't vote on the measure and said he didn't ask for it. The Parole Board had been the only state-appointed post subject to a contribution limit.
He said his experience in the Legislature with the appropriations and legislative processes will serve him well. He said what is needed at DMR is a good administrator.
"We have the unique situation where we have a lot of scientists that work for us," he said. "And that's a good thing because you rely on the technical people that understand the science, not that I don't. But I'm talking about really involved in it. They tell you what you need to know. They advise you."
DMR has grown to be a powerful state agency since it was formed in 1994. Today, it has more than 140 employees, other contract workers and an annual state funding appropriation of about $19 million, plus typically more than that in federal money and grants to go with the state money, according to Department of Finance and Administration records from recent budget years.
DMR takes the lead on spending hundreds of millions in federal money for Coast preservation and restoration projects. It has law enforcement jurisdiction over coastal waterways. The agency has also handled distribution of millions of dollars from the BP oil spill. DMR must balance what's best for the seafood and fishing industries with what's best for the environment.
An independent search?
With DMR having such a large Coast presence on environmental issues and control of such large pots of money, some local conservationists aren't comfortable with how the situation seems to be playing out. They want an open search for the next director of the powerful agency.
Though Guice's supporters have touted his political connections, Nonnie DeBardeleben of Pass Christian, who is treasurer of the Gulf Islands Conservancy and is with the group Women of the Storm, believes the politics of the area could be learned quickly by a new person.
"(The new director to be hired) may not have the political pull, but this job shouldn't be about political pull," she said. "It should be about protecting the marine resources, about protecting the barrier islands, about protecting the wetlands, protecting the fisheries, not just building boat ramps, harbors and marinas. It's about more than that. It's too important not to have the best person available running the agency."
DeBardeleben said she believes any opening for the job of DMR executive director would create an opportunity to initiate a wide search to find the best candidate, and the conservancy recently wrote a letter to the editor asking for an open search.
"Why do we have to accept Dr. Walker's handpicked deputy, who is just coming on the job?" DeBardeleben told the Sun Herald. "It's such an important job, especially now, with the money and the projects that need to be undertaken. It pays enough money. There should be a search -- a legitimate, independent national search conducted. There should be an independent search committee appointed."
Guice supporters line up
One of the more vocal opponents of Walker has mounted a grass-roots campaign to lobby Gov. Phil Bryant to pick Guice for the job. Bruce Duckett, the leader of the campaign, said Guice would be independent from what he calls the "good ol' boy" system that controls the DMR.
"I know Danny a little bit, but I know his father a lot more -- his father and my father were good friends," he said. "I always liked Danny Sr. He was extremely honest and my dad was a very upright guy and wouldn't have tolerated supporting any politician that was less than honest."
And the younger Guice apparently learned a lot from his father, Duckett said.
"My knowledge of Danny Jr. is that, like his father, he's a very fair-minded guy," he said. "He got that from his training as a judge.
"He's seen an awful lot of, let me say, bad behavior and the consequences of it and my impression of Danny Jr. -- and I don't know him real well but I know him some -- is like his dad, he's very honest and a very fair-minded guy and has a good background for that."
Duckett said Guice also has an advantage over an independent candidate from outside the area.
"If we brought somebody in -- even from another coastal area: Georgia or South Carolina or somewhere -- the learning curve that they'd be faced with just to learn the agency would be fairly lengthy. And then they've got the learning curve of figuring out who the good ol' boys are."
He said it could take up to a year to find another executive director and he worries about what could happen in the meantime to billions in BP money about to come to states affected by the Gulf oil disaster.
"There's going to be a feeding frenzy over that money like we've never seen," he said. "I have a sense of urgency about getting honest people in place after what I've seen happening so far."
Duckett is campaigning to get Guice appointed, and sent out a mass email that shows his letter to the governor as an example. He later reported to the group the governor's office had informed them they were listening.
"Thanks everyone for a great effort to let Gov. Bryant know about our support of Danny Guice!" Duckett wrote. "You all did so well, the governor's chief of staff called Danny and asked him to 'call off the dogs', to use an old Mississippi State expression. So, thanks everyone for a good job. We'll keep our powder dry for the next battle whenever that appears on the horizon."
Three nominees needed
Bryant's spokesman Mick Bullock said, "Gov. Bryant has received emails suggesting that Department of Marine Resources Deputy Director Danny Guice be appointed executive director. Appointments to the executive director position are regulated by state law. The agency's governing body, the Commission on Marine Resources, must vote to remove its current director and must then provide the governor with three qualified candidates from which he selects the appointee for the executive director position. The governor's appointment requires confirmation by the Mississippi Senate."
Follow-up questions from the Sun Herald to Bryant's office about what qualities the governor wants in the next executive director haven't been answered.
Vernon Asper, the chairman of the Commission on Marine Resources, has publicly called Guice a strong candidate.
"I think Mr. Guice fills most of the criteria you would want to have in a person like this," Asper said. "He is familiar with our agency. He is as honest as the day is long. He is well-versed in the politics of this state, which is one of the requirements -- to be able to step through the minefield of things that can go wrong. I think he's awfully good."
Wiggins making no decisions
State Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, chairs the Ports and Marine Resources Committee, which would have to confirm the nominee before the full Senate would vote on it. He isn't making any commitments.
"I have made, and in fact I have said I'm making, no decisions on that," he said. "It's not even gone through the process. It's pretty premature to say anything.
"I will say this. I think there needs to be a clean break in light of what's going on."
Guice wants to cast himself as a break from the past.
"I'm a fresh set of eyes with a different perspective," he said.
Guice doesn't see a need for wholesale changes at DMR, though.
"Being here this past couple of months has helped me realize some of the things I would tweak, some I wouldn't," he said. "If it's working right, why fix it? No need to reinvent the wheel.
"Most of what goes on down here is good stuff. Contrary to the articles that have appeared in the paper, most of these people are dedicated, highly trained folks and it's been hurtful to them to read some of this stuff. It's a good agency, it does good work and it's my goal to see that it continues to do that."
The preliminary audit report, in fact, focuses on the actions of just a few people at DMR, primarily Walker and Tina Shumate, the director of DMR's Coast Management and Planning Office. Guice said DMR just made its latest response to the audit by the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General.
"So we just turned in some of our responses and I'm -- this is a give and take, they look at what we said and scrutinize it and we look at what they said and it goes back and forth at least one more time," he said.
The final response could come as early as February.
Karen Nelson, Sun Herald staff writer, contributed to this report.