BILOXI -- Changes are in the works at the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, said interim Director Danny Guice Jr., who acknowledged this week the agency has lost the public's trust.
Guice also said the DMR is roughly $1 million over budget seven months through the fiscal year.
Former Director Bill Walker was fired earlier this month after coming under scrutiny for practices that include spending more than $1.46 million in public money on two recreational boats that don't belong to the agency, the creation of a foundation that financially benefited from its relationship with the DMR and the use of federal money to buy land from a relative.
The agency is being investigated by the State Auditor's Office and the FBI.
Guice said Wednesday he is working to close some accounts, simplify accounting and eliminate some positions to bring the agency back within its budget before the fiscal year ends June 30.
Money from one account in particular has been moved to the general fund to help the DMR balance its budget, Guice said. The account held money the federal government reimbursed the state for staffing after Hurricane Katrina.
"That money was put in a special account rather than returned to the general fund," he said, and that has been corrected.
When asked what had been the basis for spending money from that account, Guice said, "I'm not sure, to give you an honest answer."
And he did not release a money figure for that account Wednesday. But he said with that money, belt-tightening measures and other savings,
the agency should be able to end the year within its budget without asking the Legislature for more money.
He has filled two key positions and expects other staffing changes as he tries to move people into jobs that suit them better, he said.
There will be a meeting for the agency's 130 employees today at the Bolton Building so Guice can field questions.
"This is a pep talk," he said. "The point is to calm folks down and get them not to worry. The stress level here is higher than it should be."
He said he expects the agency to have a new, permanent director within two months and he hopes to have the DMR "in better shape by then. It was bloated in some areas."
Walker hired Guice in November as deputy director. Guice moved into the interim director's position when Walker was fired, but hopes to get the job permanently.
He said he is terminating the contracts of 15 of the estimated 32 contract employees.
The Sun Herald has reported that, over the years, Walker hired his Ocean Springs neighbors through no-bid contracts at a cost of $680,000.
Guice would not say whether any of the contract workers leaving were in that group.
But he said among the contract workers hired, there were questions about "how necessary their positions were" and "how much was being done."
Contract workers being paid by federal grant money "by and large will be safe," he said. "Those being paid by (state) Tidelands money may not."
He said Ocean Springs Alderman and Walker neighbor Greg Denyer resigned, even though his last contract had run out.
"He came in and turned his badge in," Guice said. "Others will be notified."
He said he plans to terminate worker contracts at the end of the quarter to give them time to prepare.
"It's no fun," he said. "I didn't want to be totally heartless."
"Everything down here is in a state of flux," he said. "We're trying to do things differently and better than in the past."
He said he's trying to become an agency that's more transparent to its commission, the Legislature and the public.
"We could be better stewards, and will be, of state tax money and other money that's under our control," he said. "It's important to regain the public trust. I know it's been damaged and I hate that."
A few changes
Two management changes have taken place.
Guice has made Susan Perkins the new public relations director, moving her from the Coast Management and Planning Office. She replaces Lauren Thompson, who is now manager of public relations. Perkins said she has one other state employee who is not management -- Trinity Walker. Walker is former director Bill Walker's daughter-in-law.
And Matt Hill was promoted to head the Fin Fish Bureau at the agency, replacing Buck Buchanan, who retired.
Guice confirmed Bill Walker was allowed into the DMR building Wednesday to clean out his sixth-floor office.
"He had personal items here," Guice said. "He didn't take any state property."
When asked if someone from the agency oversaw Walker's move, Guice said, "He had several visitors."
When pushed on the point, he said, "Yes, I'm not sure who. It was someone in enforcement."
When asked if they were visiting or overseeing Walker's work in the office, he said. "Both, really. We did what we were supposed to."
He said, "He has awards and things, personal items accumulated over 10 years plus." He said there was "nothing of interest (in the office) that hasn't been confiscated by the state or federal folks."