The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources is citing a state auditor's investigation to deny the Sun Herald access to DMR financial records -- a move open-government specialists say is wrong.
DMR attorney Sandy Chesnut, assigned to represent the agency by the Attorney General's Office, claims the financial records fall under the criminal investigations exemption to the state Public Records Act.
Not so, say attorneys Henry Laird of Gulfport and Charlie Mitchell, assistant dean of journalism at the University of Mississippi.
"These are clearly public records," Laird said. "The Department of Marine Resources is not a criminal investigation agency that can avail itself of this exemption to the Public Records Act.
"These records were not generated in pursuing a criminal investigation. They were not generated by a criminal investigatory agency. So their claim that they are exempt from the Public Records Act is not true. Even if it were, the records were not generated to further an investigation.
"The objection to furnishing these public records is not well-reasoned. It is wrong."
Records requests denied
The Sun Herald has requested records related to DMR's artificial reef and disaster relief accounts. Records given to the Sun Herald by sources show a $115,000 check that was supposed to go to DMR for maintenance of an artificial reef instead went to a foundation Walker manages.
The Sun Herald also has reported, again based on records independently obtained, that more than $1.4 million in public money from the Rigs to Reefs program went to upgrade and maintain two boats the private foundation leased to DMR.
The Sun Herald requested artificial reef records Dec. 27. Chesnut responded by email Jan. 9, saying, in part: " the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources (MDMR) has received a subpoena from the Mississippi State Auditor's Office for the requested information and therefore, the MDMR is prohibited from releasing this information " Chesnut was asked if she would at least supply fund balances for the account, from 2008 forward. She said no.
David Huggins, director of the auditor's Investigative Audit Division, said: "The auditor's office has no comment in relationship to that topic. I can't comment about what DMR does or does not do. That's an issue you need to take up with DMR."
The Auditor's Office served DMR with a subpoena for the records Jan. 8 -- the day before Chesnut responded to the Sun Herald's written request.
Also, a Sun Herald reporter visited Chesnut's office Jan. 8 to review disaster-relief account records DMR had cleared the Sun Herald to see in November. At the time, DMR said the Sun Herald could buy copies of 4,325 pages of disaster relief account and related records at a cost of $1,081.25. Labor would have been an additional $312.50.
Chesnut was no longer willing to turn over those records Wednesday. "When those records are subpoenaed, it says in the subpoena that they cannot be released to any other entity besides the State Auditor's Office," she said. "So I can't release anything to anybody. Anything they subpoenaed."
DMR estimated the cost of records requested back in November at $4,661 for thousands of pages, some of which the Sun Herald paid for and reviewed. The Sun Herald did not look at the disaster-relief records then.
Normal, routine request
Based on a federal audit, the newspaper has reported Walker approved using money from the disaster-relief account to buy a vacant lot his son owned. The newspaper also has learned some contract workers -- hired by DMR without advertisement -- were paid from the disaster-relief account. Seven of those contract workers are or were Walker's neighbors.
"Your request was to be able to tell the public how their money had been spent," attorney Mitchell said. "This is normal, even routine. But the reply says the public can't know how the money was spent because someone is checking, apparently, to see if any of it was misspent.
"All transactions of public money are audited to see that spending has been proper. Fact is, it is often public disclosure of apparent misspending that encourages accountability. It's not at all clear how disclosure would impede any investigation."
Karen Nelson, Sun Herald staff writer, contributed to this report.