BILOXI -- Public records the Sun Herald has reviewed from the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources reveal hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on outdoor gear, recreational boats, fishing shirts with embroidered logos and other promotional items, seafood, conferences and event sponsorships.
The agency has also racked up five-figure monthly credit card bills.
The DMR turned over the records only after the Sun Herald filed a lawsuit, with DMR attorneys agreeing just before a Chancery Court hearing in January the newspaper was entitled to them under the state Public Records Act.
The DMR has given the Sun Herald only the computerized portion of the records. The rest are in paper format, boxed up and in the custody of the State Auditor's Office. The auditor's office and FBI are investigating spending at the DMR under former Executive Director Bill Walker, who has been fired.
DMR attorney Sandy Chesnut last week informed the Sun Herald that paper records seized by the auditor's office are unavailable to the DMR staff. She referred the newspaper to an email she received from Chris Lott, who is investigating the DMR for the auditor's office: "We are still working with the records you have requested to review. I will let you know when we are at a point where you/your staff can come down and review the documents you need access to."
Once the records are available, Chesnut said, the newspaper will have to pay $25 an hour for a DMR law enforcement officer, needed to maintain chain of custody for the investigation, and $12.50 an hour for a DMR administrative assistant to sit with reporters during the hours they look at records.
The computer records the Sun Herald received show only a fraction of DMR spending. The DMR maintains what it calls accounts, but those accounts link to "projects," as the DMR calls them, that hold and pay out money. In 2013, the DMR listed 173 "projects."
Records are duplicated across computer files when expenses are charged to more than one project. This includes spending summaries on a Visa credit-card account that reflects employee spending with procurement cards.
In May, the DMR employees charged $55,106 to the Visa card. The Sun Herald was unable to review details for most of the credit-card spending. Receipts and other details are paper records, either associated with projects the Sun Herald has not requested or in the auditor's custody.
Public Relations Director Susan Perkins said the agency has 93 procurement cards that charge expenses to the Visa account, 40 of them assigned to Marine Patrol officers who each have a $600 annual uniform allowance.
Perkins said spending is tightly controlled, with a $500 limit for most employees who use the other 53 cards available for various programs and projects. However, the limit is waived in some cases. The Sun Herald found numerous individual charges of more than $1,000.
The DMR also spends hundreds at a time at seafood shops, submitting receipts kept in the appropriate "project" file. The newspaper was able to view detailed receipts only for the "projects" its records request covered.
For example, on eight occasions in April and May, the agency spent a total of $2,874 at Desporte & Sons Seafood on what the receipts said was "bait used for sampling." The agency collects samples of fish at artificial reefs. DMR has also spent thousands of dollars at Desporte's, Quality Seafood and Crystal Seas Seafood on food for conferences and promotions.
In November 2009, the DMR spent $73,255.69 to overhaul two engines on a fishing boat the DMR leased. Though the DMR continues to lease the 42-foot Californian, ownership was transferred in March 2010 from an Ocean Springs charity to a nonprofit foundation Bill Walker directs.
The expense was only one of many the DMR has borne for the Californian and another boat leased from the foundation, the Topaz. The Sun Herald has documented via DMR records a total of $1.4 million in spending on the boats. The DMR's leases on the boats will expire in June.
In November 2010, Bill Walker signed a purchase order that paid a London company $27,500 to produce and broadcast a short film featuring the DMR for a national science, policy and environment conference in Washington.
The DMR also spent big on shirts. In May 2009, the agency bought 100 embroidered fishing shirts, at a cost of $3,800, "to promote saltwater sport fishing." It was one of many examples of spending on embroidered shirts and other promotional items, including T-shirts, golf towels and key chains.
Karen Nelson, Sun Herald staff writer, contributed to this report.