The Sun Herald filed a Chancery Court lawsuit Wednesday against the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources over the agency's refusal to provide financial records under the state's Public Records Act.
Chancery Court Judge Jennifer Schloegel plans to hear arguments for and against disclosure of the records at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Gulfport courthouse. The Sun Herald is asking that the judge compel the DMR to produce the records.
The DMR has cited a state auditor's investigation to deny the Sun Herald access to the records. DMR attorney Sandy Chesnut, assigned to represent the agency by the Attorney General's Office, claims the financial records fall under the law's criminal investigations exemption.
Sun Herald attorney Henry Laird said the DMR is unable to claim the exemption because it applies to law enforcement agencies.
The Sun Herald seeks records from the DMR's disaster relief and artificial reef accounts.
Records given to the Sun Herald by sources show a $115,000 check that was supposed to go to the DMR for maintenance of an artificial reef instead went to a foundation directed by former DMR Executive Director Bill Walker. The DMR's governing board fired Walker on Wednesday, having previously confirmed federal and state investigations of DMR spending.
The Sun Herald 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 the DMR.
Based on a federal audit, the newspaper also has reported Walker approved using money from the DMR's disaster-relief account to buy a vacant lot his son owned. The newspaper also has learned some contract workers -- hired by the DMR without advertisement -- were paid from the disaster-relief account.
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.
Also, a Sun Herald reporter visited Chesnut's office Jan. 8 to review disaster-relief account records the DMR had cleared the Sun Herald to see in November. Chesnut was no longer willing to turn over the records because the auditor's office has subpoenaed them for a grand jury, too.
"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 told the reporter who went to see the records. "So I can't release anything to anybody. Anything they subpoenaed."
The Sun Herald has not requested records from the state auditor's investigative files.