DMR commissioner used foundation boat in fishing tournament

klnelson@sunherald.comMarch 9, 2013 

BILOXI -- One member of the commission that oversees the state Department of Marine Resources said he borrowed a 36-foot recreational fishing boat from Bill Walker, the former executive director of the agency, to fish a big game tournament.

Walker loaned Commissioner Jimmy Taylor the boat from the Mississippi Marine Resources Foundation he directed.

Another commissioner said he let the DMR pay for flights home from a Pennsylvania sabbatical and equipment to complete joint scientific work.

The other commissioners on the five-man Commission on Marine Resources, said they have not used foundation boats or DMR equipment.

Taylor, who has been on the CMR for six years, said last week that he used a 36-foot Topaz from Walker's foundation to fish the Mississippi Gulf Coast Big Game Fishing Club's Sonny Johnson Memorial tournament in August.

He said the Topaz could sleep three or four below deck, but he and the crew also stayed a night in Venice, La.

Taylor said he paid for fuel, the tournament entry fee and other costs for the trip. And he said that at the time, he did not know the boat was leased by the DMR.

The Topaz is one of two recreational fishing boats that belong to the Mississippi Marine Resources Foundation. But Walker and the foundation lease the boats to the DMR. And the state agency has poured more than $1.4 million in public money into leases, maintenance and upgrades for the Topaz and a 42-foot Californian in recent years, an arrangement that is under investigation by the State Auditor and the FBI.

The commission fired Walker for cause in January amid investigations into DMR spending. Walker contends he has done nothing wrong.

A blown engine

Taylor, an avid sport fisherman and tournament winner, told the Sun Herald last week how he came to use the Topaz.

He said he had planned to take DMR employee Kerwin Cuevas and a friend on the tournament to teach them the sport of billfishing.

"Then I blew an engine in my boat, a 42-foot Bertram," Taylor said. "I was planning on Kerwin and his friend going with us. When we blew the engine, I said, 'Kerwin can we use the Topaz?' And he said, 'Let me check with Dr. Walker.'

"First of all, I didn't know the Topaz belonged to the foundation. I didn't know it belonged to the DMR. Thought it was a drug boat that was donated, everybody around the harbor did," Taylor said.

"So he asked Dr. Walker and I talked to Dr. Walker and he (Walker) said, 'Just take it, you're a licensed captain.' And I said, 'No, that's a DMR boat.'"

"And he said a foundation owns it," Taylor said. Later Taylor said, "That was the first time I knew anything about a foundation. I was not told or had any knowledge that the boat was leased to the DMR by the foundation until your newspaper reported it in October."

Taylor said he volunteered information about the trip to the state audit investigators and the FBI.

"Okay, then Kerwin and his friend couldn't go and I had to get a captain, someone else to go for safety reasons," Taylor said.

"So we used the boat one time," he said. "I haven't been fishing (on them) other than that."

He listed the boat on the tournament roster as Team Lauren, based on his boat's name, he said. He didn't include a boat name. Usually you put the boat name, he said. "That boat doesn't have a name. Still doesn't."

The Topaz doesn't have a name painted on the stern, but it is listed with the U.S. Coast Guard by the name Foundation.

"We paid for all the fuel, paid all the expenses, the entry fee. As a matter of fact, we actually did some repairs to the boat before we left," he said.

"We put outriggers on the boat and left the outrigger holders. We put fuel filters on the boat, extra oil, extra antifreeze. We left all that on the boat."

Taylor said he knew about the Topaz and the Californian because Walker keeps them at the Biloxi Small Craft Harbor near where he keeps one of his boats. He said he has been on the Californian at least 10 times to measure its engines because he plans to buy some like them.

"And I've been asked to go on it five or six times by Dr. Walker and other people and I've declined," Taylor said. "I know Scott Walker (Bill Walker's son) was on the boat a lot."

Flights and equipment

CMR Chairman Vernon Asper has been a member of the commission for 19 years and is a professor of marine sciences for the University of Southern Mississippi.

He said that when he was on sabbatical in Pennsylvania in 2009, the DMR paid for two flights home so he could attend CMR meetings.

He said the agency also bought a sonar piece for an underwater rover he had. DMR also let him use a software key to access data for a short time in 2000 and pilot a plane the DMR owned before Katrina to help with USM Gulf Coast Research Lab projects several times.

Asper said he also went out on sampling trips with the DMR. He didn't consider them recreational fishing trips, but rather work, because that's what he does for a living for USM.

Asper said the data key was valuable in 2000 because that was before there was such widespread access to databases. He said the DMR had purchased about 10 of the data licenses for employees and he was allowed to use one for several weeks so that he could access DMR databases on coastal ecology, "but only wearing my commissioner hat."

The underwater rover was financed through sources other than the DMR, but the state agency purchased add-on equipment worth about $5,000, he said. It was a sonar about the size of a coffee cup. But he said it was for DMR use and later the DMR brought it back into the state agency's inventory and he hasn't seen it since.

"I looked up the travel I did in the fall of 2009 while I was on sabbatical," he told the Sun Herald in an email.

He said, "I was chair of the CMR even back then so Bill (Walker) felt that it was reasonable to bring me down to Mississippi for the meeting. On each occasion, I flew south on Monday afternoon and flew back on Tuesday afternoon so they were very short trips."

He said those trips were in October and November and cost the agency a total of $590.

He said he missed the August CMR meeting because he had a research cruise that required his participation. He missed the September meeting because he had a conflicting meeting in Seattle. And weather cancelled his flight home for the December meeting.

Asper said he piloted the DMR's plane twice without pay as a favor to the agency and once there was an agreement in place with USM and the Research Lab, he flew it for university projects, but USM paid for expenses.

"I hope this helps to explain some of the interactions between my work at USM and the DMR," Asper said. "Keep in mind that the Gulf Coast Research Lab is also USM and that lots of money moves from DMR to the GCRL, including some Tidelands funds and other contracts such things as water quality monitoring (along with the DEQ) etc. I think it's pretty common for the state agencies to share personnel, services and facilities."

Perspective

Asper said CMR commissioners are volunteers who receive only $40 a meeting, plus mileage. He said they fill the positions because of their interest in DMR's work. The DMR mission is preserving the Coast's environment, enforcing laws in coastal waterways and regulating related industry.

"My monthly paycheck is $73. We're doing this to be public servants," Asper said.

Taylor and Asper both said the commission doesn't truly govern the DMR, and doesn't have access to the day-to-day operations of the agency, even though state law charges them with formulating policy, having authority over the executive director and setting up rules for the department.

"We don't have oversight on a lot of stuff," Taylor said. "We're really not an oversight agency like you would think. The governor really has the word on that. Really all we can do is make rules and stuff."

On Taylor using the foundation boat in August, Asper as spokesman for and chairman of the commission, said, "The foundation is not the department. It's completely separate. What he does with any foundation boat is between him and the foundation."

However, when reminded that the boat was under lease to the state agency, Asper said, "I just don't know. I'm not involved in that. I'm not exactly sure what the arrangement was there. I don't know what to think."

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