Despite having other boats at its disposal, the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources has spent more than $80,000 to charter vessels for trips a DMR official says are now part of a criminal investigation at the agency.
Invoices and letters provided by the DMR indicate the trips were to conduct fish sampling for research on the artificial reefs overseen by the agency in the Mississippi Sound and Gulf of Mexico.
But the DMR official who oversees that sampling said he didn't order the trips and had no prior knowledge of them. When the Sun Herald asked why his signature appears on purchase orders authorizing payments for the trips, he said that was an oversight on his part.
Most of the charters were with Silver Dollar Inc., a company owned by Jay Trochesset of Biloxi. Over the years, the company has offered charters on a number of boats, which all carry the name Silver Dollar.
From 2008 to 2012, the DMR paid $80,415 for trips aboard Silver Dollar vessels.
Joe Jewell, deputy director of the DMR fisheries program, which oversees the reefs programs, said the only sampling trips he was aware of were taken on the Fish Haven, a boat the DMR owns, or the Topaz, a boat leased from the Mississippi Marine Resources Foundation directed by fired DMR Director Bill Walker.
"I had no prior knowledge that we were actually chartering the Silver Dollar," Jewell said last week. "I had no knowledge of the Silver Dollar II, or that process, or those activities. I think there were certainly activities that occurred that were not in our routine programs.
"We are very restricted on what we can talk to you about. It's not that we wouldn't want to talk to you about it, but we have been asked by the state auditor and the FBI to restrict our comments on very specific subjects and that is starting to get into one of the issues that they are investigating."
Investigators from the state auditor's office and the FBI are examining the DMR under Bill Walker's tenure, including agency spending practices, a foundation Walker directed that financially
benefited from its relationship with the DMR and use of federal money to buy land from relatives of Walker and another DMR manager.
Though Jewell said he had no knowledge of the trips, he had signed two purchase orders authorizing payment for three Silver Dollar trips in 2012, records the Sun Herald obtained show. Jewell said: "I sign multiple POs on a daily basis, if that just slipped by me . I wasn't aware that I had signed them so if my signature is on that, then I did sign those and that was just an oversight on my part.
"When I signed those POs I signed them with a clear conscience that they were for an appropriate purpose," sampling for the Rigs to Reef program.
Walker, before he was fired, told the Sun Herald the charter trips often included lawmakers and others who could be helpful to the agency to allow them to "better understand the importance of continuing to create these habitats and to help them understand the necessity of conserving and protecting these critical habitats, which are important to the economic sustainability of our charter fleet, our commercial fishermen and our recreational fishermen."
Walker also said they took "fin sections to determine fish age."
But Jewell said the agency doesn't use fin sections to determine age. He said they remove the otolith, a bone in the ear. The bone is sawed and the rings inside it are counted to determine the age of the fish.
Walker also had said some of the trips were to collect samples after the BP oil disaster to show seafood from the Mississippi waters and the Gulf of Mexico was safe to eat.
However, records obtained from the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality show samples were turned in on only three of eight days charters were taken. On Aug. 11, 2011, and Sept. 7, 2011, the samples were from blue crab caught in the Pearl River and on Aug. 17, 2012, the samples were from oysters harvested off Pass Christian.
Transportation to reefs
There is little in the records to explain what went on aboard the charters, just phrases such as "trap samplings on the fish havens."
Trochesset also said, "I think it's probably best for me to wait until the investigation's over" and added he couldn't comment on whether he saw any sampling done on the trips.
"I probably need to wait till it's all done, and I thought it would be done by now. I'm just a small piece of this huge puzzle they're dealing with, but I'd be glad to tell you everything just as soon as they conclude this thing."
Trochesset described the trips as nothing out of the ordinary -- other than the passengers.
"It was charters, but they chartered (with) other people probably, but I have a new boat and a nice boat so that's probably why they chartered me more than other people," he said. "I don't want to beat my own drum, but I've got a fine boat. Important people, they want to put them there."
Jewell said he was unable to comment on specifics of the charters because they are part of an "ongoing investigative process."
One trip with details
Before the agency owned the Fish Haven or leased the Topaz, it used charters for research at the reefs. After reviewing more than 15,000 documents, the Sun Herald found just one charter -- an Aug. 1, 2007, trip on the Miss Hospitality captained by Kenneth Barhanovich -- that included any details about the trip.
That document named the six people aboard for the Gulf Fisheries Council artificial reef inspection. They were Jason Spellings and Ashley Edwards of then-Gov. Haley Barbour's office; Clay Williams of Capitol Resources, a lobbying firm; Scott Walker of then-Sen. Trent Lott's office; Parah Fishburn of Sen. Thad Cochran's office; and Bill Walker.
The details included an agenda:
7 a.m.: Meet at Point Cadet on vessel 'Miss Hospitality' for trip to Fish Haven 2, a reef.
10 a.m.: Mark and record material on bottom with acoustic instrumentation and verify utilization of finfish.
12:30 a.m.: Lunch on vessel.
2 p.m.: Move to Fish Haven 13, another reef, to mark and record material on bottom with acoustic instrumentation and verify reef utilization of finfish.
3 p.m.: Return to Point Cadet.
But that amount of detail about a trip was the exception.
Justification in question
Records released to the Sun Herald through a Mississippi Public Records Act request show more-recent charters were justified "due to Artificial Reef Vessel breakdowns," but neither repair bills in public records, nor the log of the Fish Haven, makes any mention of repairs to that boat on the days of the charters.
Kerwin Cuevas, Mississippi Artificial Reef Program coordinator, signed documents for all the charters, though Jewell also signed off on some. Bills from the Silver Dollar were directed to Cuevas, and he wrote the interoffice memoranda justifying the charters.
Jewell said Cuevas would not be able to comment on the charters or say who ordered him to set them up because they are part of the criminal investigation.
"If Kerwin were here, and he's at a meeting today, and if he was here he would answer any questions that he could answer for you and he would answer the questions that you asked me that I could answer," Jewell said. "But those questions that are part of an ongoing criminal investigation, he wouldn't be able to answer."
The fisheries bureau has three boats at its disposal to monitor the artificial reefs created by the Rigs to Reefs and Artificial Reefs programs. Rigs to Reefs moves decommissioned drilling rigs to "fish havens" to create habitat for red snapper and other game fish. Artificial Reefs uses concrete culverts, old vessels and other materials to build reefs.
"Artificial reefs in Mississippi and adjacent marine waters are located and built to support and enhance recreational fishing," the DMR explains on its website. "Properly located, constructed and managed reef sites can meet a variety of uses."
A bigger boat
The reef maintenance requires boats, large boats.
In 2008, the DMR bought the Fish Haven, a 42-foot vessel custom-built by Geo Shipyard of New Iberia, La., for $389,550. DMR records call it a "Hydrographic Survey Boat for Fisheries (Artificial Reef)."
In addition to the boat construction costs, $6,394 of equipment -- including side-scan sonar, a digital compass, radar and marine radio -- were installed on it. Also, a $3,543 JBL seaworthy stereo system with four speakers was installed on the Fish Haven before it was delivered.
"Fish Haven is an important vessel for us here at Marine Fisheries," Jewell said. "That boat operates under the Artificial Reef program; its primary purpose and use is the Artificial Reef program. And they use that boat for assessment, management and collection of field data on our artificial reefs."
One of the recreational fishing boats leased by the DMR, the 36-foot Topaz, was also used for the Rigs to Reefs program, Jewell said.
"The Fish Haven, as large as it seems to you, 50, 60 miles offshore it gets pretty small. We did use the Topaz occasionally for official purposes, the same type activities we did with the Fish Haven, and that's for monitoring reefs.
"It has a lot larger deck space. You've seen those large traps we use, the collapsible traps. It has larger deck space than Fish Haven and we did occasionally use the Topaz to conduct those official activities required by our agency."
A second recreational fishing boat leased by the DMR, the 42-foot Californian, was not used to monitor reefs, Jewell said.
The Sun Herald has reported on more than $1.4 million spent to repair and restore the two older, recreational fishing boats -- the Topaz and Californian. They are owned by the Mississippi Marine Resources Foundation and leased by the DMR, but the lease specifies the DMR must pay all maintenance costs.
Purchasing records also show the DMR has spent $75,833 for maintenance and repairs on the Fish Haven. According to the ship's log, it made 35 trips in 2008, 62 in 2009, 30 in 2010, 34 in 2011 and 23 in 2012. Logs for the Topaz and Californian are not available.
No more interviews
The DMR shut down dialogue with the media about parts of the investigation Wednesday.
After consulting with the State Auditor's Office, DMR Public Relations Director Susan Perkins wrote:
"I spoke with Carrie Sumrall, an investigator with the state auditor's office, to get some clarification on what we can and cannot discuss. She consulted with Chris Lott and her supervisor in Jackson. All agree that due to the ongoing investigation, Kerwin Cuevas cannot be interviewed by any news media at this time. No MDMR staff member can discuss details pertaining to the investigation with news media. Specifics about receipts and invoices fall into this category. We are cooperating with the state auditor's office and do not want to do anything to interfere with their investigation or obstruct justice. If I can be of further assistance, please let me know."