GULFPORT -- Faced with a lawsuit, the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources agreed Wednesday to give the Sun Herald agency documents the newspaper seeks under the state's Public Records Act.
The Sun Herald filed suit Jan. 16 in Chancery Court after the DMR denied access to the records, citing the criminal investigations exemption to the public records law. The Sun Herald argued the exemption does not apply because the DMR is not a law enforcement agency.
The two sides were scheduled for an expedited hearing this morning before Chancery Judge Jennifer Schloegel.
On Monday, DMR attorneys appeared before Circuit Judge Roger Clark to modify a subpoena the DMR received Jan. 9 for some of the same
records the Sun Herald seeks.
The attorneys said the wording of the original subpoena, from the State Auditor's Office, prohibited the DMR from releasing the records to others.
Clark agreed to modify the subpoena so the DMR could comply with the Public Records Act.
DMR attorneys, appointed to the agency by the state Attorney General's Office, told Sun Herald attorney Henry Laird before the hearing in Schloegel's court the Sun Herald could have the records.
In court, Laird told Schloegel the Sun Herald and the DMR attorneys had agreed the records the Sun Herald seeks are public records and the Sun Herald will be allowed to inspect and copy them in the near future. He said he hopes to report back to Schloegel soon that the lawsuit has been resolved without a hearing.
The State Auditor's Office has subpoenaed boxes of paper and electronic documents from the DMR for a grand jury investigation.
The court file on that case, including the subpoenas, is sealed. Circuit Court officials did provide the Sun Herald with a copy of Clark's order from the case file.
The Sun Herald plans to view financial records and related documents from the DMR's Rigs to Reefs and Katrina relief accounts, along with other records.
DMR spending under former Executive Director Bill Walker is under investigation by the auditor's office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The DMR's governing board, the Commission on Marine Resources, voted unanimously Jan. 15 to fire Walker, who had headed the agency since 2002.