Foundation to transfer boat ownership to DMR, state auditor says

mmnewsom@sunherald.comApril 16, 2013 

BILOXI -- State Auditor Stacey Pickering said Tuesday the Mississippi Marine Resources Foundation is taking steps to transfer two controversial boats it owns to the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources.

The news about the boats followed a meeting with the foundation, which is directed by Bill Walker, the former director of DMR. The foundation was created in 2004 under the premise it would support the activities of the DMR. The foundation has been under scrutiny as troubles have been reported at the DMR during Walker's tenure, which ran from 2002 until he was fired from the agency in January. Walker has denied wrongdoing.

Pickering said his office, the DMR and the foundation will try over the next week and a half to figure out the legal steps to protect the taxpayer-funded assets on the boats and discuss transferring ownership of the vessels to the DMR. But Pickering, who announced the discussions at a news conference Tuesday at DMR headquarters, said the development doesn't mark the end of any investigation.

"This is an ongoing investigation on the civil and criminal side," Pickering said. "It is multi-faceted and very complicated and when you're dealing with multiple years,

financial documents, details you're going through, foundation money as well as federal grant dollars and multiple state agencies involved, this is a very complicated investigation."

Pickering met Tuesday with Walker, as well as foundation members Robert Culumber and Jerry Munro, before the news conference. Reporters weren't invited to the meeting with the foundation and foundation members didn't attend Pickering's news conference.

But the auditor said foundation members were cooperative and he said he appreciated their help with the process.

The Sun Herald has written about the two recreational fishing boats. Some have questioned spending hundreds of thousands of public dollars repairing and upgrading the boats. The fishing trips the DMR has taken lawmakers and other influential folks on have been questioned as well. Those trips involved the foundation boats as well as charters.

The DMR had defended the use of the boats, which it leases from the foundation, saying they are used to educate people through fishing trips about artificial reefs the agency maintains. The leases had expired in 2011 and had been renewed on a month-to-month basis.

Pickering said about $1.1 million in taxpayer assets, which include the DMR upgrades, are now on the two boats, which haven't been taken out in months. The insurance policies, which cost DMR about $18,000 annually, will expire in June. The expenses related to the boats came from a Rigs to Reefs program.

The auditor said it's been difficult to track down paperwork on some of the upgrades, but the DMR could be able to reclaim its property aboard the boats.

"In the upgrades and the repairs (over) the last couple of years, the Ts were not crossed and the Is were not dotted," Pickering said. "I would dare say sometimes the Ts got dotted and the Is got crossed."

What the DMR will do with the boats if they are acquired from the foundation isn't clear, but new DMR Executive Director Jamie Miller said at the news conference it's clear the DMR will have no further relationship with Walker's foundation.

"The agency has no intention to extend or renew any leases on these boats and does not intend to have any relation with the foundation," Miller said. "That's all we have to say at this time until we get further legal items cleared up."

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