DMR records subpoenaed by grand jury closed to public

calee@sunherald.comJanuary 15, 2013 

JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALDSandy Chesnut, assistant attorney general assigned to the Department of Marine Resources, on Jan. 15, 2013.

JOHN FITZHUGH — SUN HERALD Buy Photo

BILOXI -- The attorney for the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources read a statement during a board meeting Tuesday about why the agency recently denied the Sun Herald's request for financial records.

Attorneys who specialize in access issues believe the public-records request was wrongly denied because the public records exemption the DMR cited applies to law enforcement agencies and should not impede the public's right to view records filed at the agency. The Sun Herald has not requested investigative files from the State Auditor's Office, which has an ongoing probe of the DMR under director Bill Walker, whom the governing Commission on Marine Resources fired Tuesday.

The DMR has in past months granted Sun Herald requests for records, but changed its position when the agency was served Jan. 8 with a grand jury subpoena for records the Sun Herald had already sought. The Sun Herald wanted to review the agency's artificial reef and post-Katrina disaster accounts, along with documents associated with those accounts.

Attorney Sandy Chesnut read the following statement in the CMR meeting:

"The department has provided the Sun Herald numerous documents pursuant to their public records requests in a timely and efficient manner.

"Last week, the department was served a subpoena, which was issued by the State Auditor's Office and returnable to the grand jury.

"The subpoena specifically mandated that the records requested by subpoena may not be released to any other entity besides the (auditor's office).

"Accordingly, pursuant to the terms of the subpoena and upon advice received from the State Auditor's Office, the department's only course of action was to comply with the subpoena and deny the release of records to the Sun Herald.

"If the Sun Herald chooses to do so, they may challenge the validity of the state auditor's subpoena in the proper forum.

"Until then, the department will comply with the mandates of the subpoena and requests for any documents subject to the state auditor's subpoena will be denied."

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