Politicians giving marine resources foundation money back

mmnewsom@sunherald.comJanuary 23, 2013 

Campaigns for governor, Congress, the state Legislature and other offices received checks from the foundation headed by recently fired Department of Marine Resources Executive Director Bill Walker.

Recently, campaigns have begun giving the money back, as the state and federal investigations into the DMR's spending practices under Walker's leadership are continuing.

The activities of the Mississippi Marine Resources Foundation, which was created in 2004, under the premise it would support the activities of the DMR, have also been placed under scrutiny. Public money from the DMR has flowed through the foundation, but how much isn't clear.

Walker was fired by the DMR's governing board earlier this month,

and since then, some checks from his foundation were given back. Others were never accepted for various reasons. It's unknown how many candidates received money and how much was spent.

Gov. Phil Bryant's campaign told the Sun Herald it has refunded the $500 it received from the foundation in 2010 and the $1,000 the group gave it in 2011.

"These were legal contributions accepted in compliance with campaign finance laws," a statement from Friends of Phil Bryant treasurer Paul Breazeale said. "Given the recent news questioning the financial activity of that foundation, we decided to voluntarily return the total amount to the foundation on Jan. 18, 2013."

The Sun Herald has reported the Investigative Audit Division of the State Auditor's Office and the FBI are investigating the DMR's spending under Walker's leadership. The U.S. Interior Department recently audited the agency.

The Sun Herald also has written about the foundation, which owns two recreational fishing boats -- a 36-foot Topaz sport fisherman and a 42-foot Californian convertible. Some have questioned spending hundreds of thousands of public dollars repairing and upgrading the boats. The fishing trips the DMR has taken lawmakers and other influential folks on have been questioned as well.

The DMR spent more than $1.46 million out of a Rigs to Reefs program fund on upgrades, maintenance and insurance for the two boats the foundation owns. The DMR defends the use of the boats, which it leases from the foundation, saying they are used to educate people through fishing trips to artificial reefs the agency maintains.

Documents the Sun Herald received show other public money has been given to the foundation through thousands in environmental violation fines.

Multiple contributions

The Sun Herald called elected officials to ask if they, too, had received campaign money from the foundation. Some calls weren't returned, but others acknowledged they received contributions, which they were either refunding or planning to give to a charity.

In addition to being treasurer for Bryant's campaign, Breazeale, of Jackson, is treasurer of U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo's campaign, which has also refunded money to the foundation. Palazzo's campaign received a foundation check for $250 in February, and it was returned last week, Breazeale said.

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker's campaign received a check for $300 it wouldn't accept.

The foundation, which was incorporated in 2004, is listed as a nonprofit corporation in good standing with the Secretary of State's Office. Federal campaign-finance law doesn't allow direct contributions from corporations to candidates for federal office. Wicker's campaign manager, Ryan Annison, said the $300 check written June 27 was given back to the foundation.

"Wicker for Senate can't accept donations of this kind and never deposited the check from (the foundation)," Annison said.

U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran's office said it has no record of having ever received any money from the foundation.

State Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, said he received either $200 or $250 from the foundation at a campaign fundraiser at a home in Pascagoula in the fall. He told the Sun Herald on Wednesday he plans to give the money back, or give it to a charity.

"I don't plan to keep that money in my account," Watson said.

Former State Sen. Billy Hewes is running for mayor of Gulfport. He said the foundation tried to give him a check as part of fundraising golf tournament he held last year, but he didn't accept it because it came from a foundation. He couldn't recall the amount, but said he would likely return any money from a foundation.

"We just figured it didn't fit in with the normal contributions, so we returned it," Hewes said.

Hewes, who also ran for lieutenant governor, said he doesn't recall getting any money from the foundation for his campaigns.

Limited information

Websites that report campaign finances have limited information about the foundation's donations, and the latest state finance reports aren't due until the end of the month. The Federal Elections Commission, which oversees federal elections, has no record in its system of any donations from the foundation.

Walker couldn't be reached for comment for this story and a full accounting of the foundation's spending hasn't yet been given, so it's unclear how much was spent on campaigns and exactly which candidates received the money.

The Sun Herald made a public records request to the DMR this week to get details of political contributions the foundation made, but the agency hasn't yet responded. Under state law, the agency has up to seven working days to comply with most requests and up to 14 days in some cases involving more-complicated requests.

Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources Chairman Vernon Asper, said the commission, which oversees the DMR, was unaware of the donations.

"As you know, none of the commissioners were involved in any of the foundation activities, so I'm confident that none of us knew anything about these donations," Asper said.

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