Guice believes 'providence' landed him in DMR's top job

calee@sunherald.comJanuary 15, 2013 

BILOXI -- The former legislator Bill Walker hand-picked in November to be deputy director at the state Department of Marine Resources said Tuesday if he had known then what he knows now, he might have turned down the job.

Walker and Danny Guice visited with Gov. Phil Bryant, who gave his blessing, before Guice moved from the state Parole Board to the DMR's No. 2 position, Guice said.

"The governor said, 'That's fine. I think that's a great idea,'" Guice said. "I had zero knowledge of this (the investigations). Had I had knowledge of this, I probably wouldn't have taken it."

Guice has served as acting director since Walker was placed on administrative leave Dec. 28 over questionable spending, which is under state and federal investigation.

"Maybe I'm here by providence," Guice said. "Somebody's got to straighten this out."

Guice said he learned just before the governing Commission on Marine Resources meeting Tuesday morning that Walker would be fired. Guice now finds himself dealing with a tight budget, contract workers who might have to be dismissed

and two boats DMR continued to maintain even though leases on those boats, with Walker's private foundation, expired two years ago.

CMR board members and Guice have said they knew nothing about the foundation until the Sun Herald started reporting on its activities. Since 2007, DMR has spent $1.46 million to upgrade, maintain and insure two recreational fishing boats Walker's Mississippi Marine Resources Foundation owns.

Guice said he learned Thursday that the boat leases had expired, but the DMR legal staff advised that "implied leases" still exist because the DMR has continued to insure and spend money on the boats. He said the DMR has now stopped spending money on, or using, the boats.

Guice also said the DMR no longer has any involvement with Walker's foundation. When Walker recently said he might donate the boats to the DMR, Guice advised Walker to publicly announce the donation. Guice said he is waiting to see what Walker will do.

"We've got other boats," Guice said. "If Dr. Walker does what he says he's going to do, we'll use them then."

Guice also said he had been fishing a couple of years ago on one of the boats, which the DMR used to entertain public officials and dignitaries while collecting fish samples. Guice said he was invited by Walker on a "working trip," where samples were collected.

Guice believes the boats have helped DMR reel in federal money because officials from Washington were taken on trips. He has heard $9 million in grants resulted.

"That's a pretty a good return on your investment," Guice said. "Nothing nefarious was intended."

Guice resigned in November from the state Parole Board to join the DMR. He served from 1984 to 2008 in the Mississippi House of Representatives, where he was a member of the Marine Resources Committee. He also chaired the House Banking and Financial Services Committee, among other assignments.

The DMR's governing board is considering a search for a new director, with talk of hiring someone who has a background in marine science. Walker has a doctorate in soil microbiology and biochemistry,

"I don't mind having a search," Guice said. "I think all this business about having a science background sounds good, but our last director had a science background."

While he was director, Walker hired contract workers for positions that were not advertised to the public, including seven employees who are or were his neighbors. Guice said he is reviewing contract worker jobs and eliminating some.

He believes his experience as a state legislator taught him the administrative skills he needs to run the DMR, an agency with about 130 employees.

"This is not brain surgery," he said. "It really isn't. You need to know how much money you have and what you're going to be spending it on. If it doesn't add up to the bottom line, you've got to make adjustments."

Michael Newsom, Sun Herald staff writer, contributed to this report.

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