DMR director applications sought through March 12

Chief: $2.3 million now accounted for

mmnewsom@sunherald.comFebruary 19, 2013 

BILOXI -- The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources' governing board will take applications for director of the agency for the next three weeks in hopes of filling the job, which pays between $83,427 and $108,455.

Also, Danny Guice, the DMR's interim director, said Tuesday he can now account for more than half of some $4 million in agency spending that was the focus of a Sun Herald story Sunday.

The director's job has been vacant since January, when the Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources fired Bill Walker from his $124,000-a-year job amid state and federal investigations of the agency's spending during Walker's tenure. Those probes continue, though Walker has denied any wrongdoing.

The Commission on Marine Resources approved an ad Tuesday that will circulate until March 12, the deadline to apply. Chairman Vernon Asper said the CMR will likely conduct interviews with the candidates behind closed doors in hopes of keeping their names confidential.

The ads are planned to run Sundays in the Sun Herald and major Gulf state newspapers until the March deadline. The CMR will also advertise online and send notices to about 25 marine organizations and all of Mississippi's universities, among others.

Asper said though the time frame isn't ideal to get the word out, he feels more people are aware of the vacancy because it has been big news here.

"While it's not as long as I would really like to see it, given it is on the street reasonably well already, I think (the time frame) it's probably livable," Asper said.

A meeting at 9 a.m. March 13 was set for the CMR to discuss the applications it receives. The commission must provide three names to Gov. Phil Bryant, who will select one. Bryant's choice must be confirmed by the state Senate, so the CMR wants to get the nominee to them before April 7, the date the legislative session is scheduled to end.

Applications already in

Asper said recently the commission has already received some applicants, which he said were being kept confidential. But state government insiders have tossed around names in recent weeks.

Since Ashley Edwards, director of Bryant's office of recovery, declined to pursue the post, another name is being discussed. Jamie Miller had been U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo's chief of staff until he left in December after a little more than a year. Miller, 40, had also served eight months as deputy chief of staff for the congressman, who was elected in 2010. Miller worked as a DMR coastal ecologist from 1997 to 1999, as well as Pascagoula's deputy city manager and as policy adviser under then-Gov. Haley Barbour.

Miller hasn't responded to calls from the Sun Herald, so it's unclear whether he's officially sought the DMR director position.

Interim Director Guice, a former state lawmaker whom Walker hired as his deputy director in late 2012, has said he plans to seek the job on a permanent basis.

Subcommittees created

After allegations against the DMR surfaced, commissioners asked their legal counsel to come up with changes to the agency's handbook, requiring more reporting to the commission about how the DMR was spending its money.

At Tuesday's meeting, the CMR received a draft of proposed changes. They included a host of rules on avoiding conflicts of interest and unethical behavior. The new rules would also make it clear the executive director shouldn't employ or contract with members of his family or the family of the DMR staff. It would also bar the executive director from participating in partisan political activities, among other provisions. The Sun Herald uncovered campaign donations to several politicians made by the foundation Walker directs.

Commissioners decided at the meeting to create three spending oversight subcommittees each made up of two commissioners. The committees -- financial oversight, contract review and program review -- were formed on a trial basis and will discuss their work at the April commission meeting.

"By doing it on a trial basis, I think we can get the process going to get a little bit closer to the day-to-day operations of the agency," Asper said.

Guice finds $2.3 million

Guice said Tuesday about $2.3 million of about $4 million in questioned spending has been accounted for. Guice had told the Sun Herald about the Tidelands funding last week, which the agency was trying to account for.

On Monday, the day after the Sun Herald reported the story on the unaccounted-for $4 million, Guice went to an employee who was involved in spending the money and discovered how it had been spent.

Guice was asked Tuesday for specifics about where the $2.3 million went, but said he didn't have the information with him during the interview before Tuesday's meeting and he didn't provide it by press time.

Guice said he expects it will be difficult and likely take "months if not weeks" to find out where the remaining $1.7 million went.

"I expect that (the money) will have funded good programs," he said. "We just want to know (where it went). I don't think anything has been done inappropriately. The bookkeeping here has been tough and that's one of the things we want to work on in the future is to make it simpler and easier so I can say 'we spent money on this program.'"

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