GULFPORT -- Chancery Judge Jennifer Schloegel concluded at the end of a hearing Tuesday she could not force the Mississippi Department of Resources to provide the Sun Herald records the agency no longer possesses.
In order to pursue the case, she ruled, the newspaper would need to add the State Auditor's Office as a defendant in a public records lawsuit it filed against the DMR.
The Sun Herald sued the DMR under the state Public Records Act for access to agency financial records. It requested records of the agency's Katrina Relief account in November and its Rigs to Reefs account in late December. The Auditor's Office subpoenaed the same records in early January, about the same time the newspaper asked to pick up the records, for a grand jury investigation of the DMR.
DMR attorneys argue they are unable to give copies of the records to the Sun Herald because the Auditor's Office has them.
Chris Lott, a special agent with the Auditor's Office, said the records were kept in 38 boxes and two file cabinets at the Auditor's Office on the first floor of the Bolton Building in Biloxi. The DMR offices are in the same building.
Lott, who is assigned to the investigation, said some of the records have since been forwarded to offices in Hattiesburg, Laurel and Jackson.
"We have such a multi-faceted investigation going on," Lott said. "We have investigators throughout the state assisting."
Auditor's attorney Melissa Patterson tried to convince Schloegel she should close the courtroom to the public because the hearing involved the auditor's investigation.
But Sun Herald attorney Henry Laird said the newspaper was not seeking details of the inquiry. He also pointed out the public had received no notice the courtroom might be closed. Schloegel did not close the hearing.
DMR attorney Sandy Chesnut testified about emails she exchanged with Laird and a Sun Herald reporter after a Jan. 23 court date in the public records case.
No hearing was held that day because the DMR agreed beforehand to turn over the financial records it had previously denied the newspaper. The DMR gave the Sun Herald 22,000 pages of records on computer disk, but said the remaining records were only in paper format in the auditor's possession. The paper records detail, in part, credit card spending by DMR employees.
Chesnut and the DMR had agreed to facilitate a review of the paper records by Sun Herald reporters, the emails showed, but the auditors never gave the DMR access to them.
The Sun Herald has reported since fall on questionable spending at the DMR under former Executive Director Bill Walker. The auditor's office and Federal Bureau of Investigation both have ongoing investigations.
The DMR's governing board fired Walker in January.