Mississippi DMR selling boats it received from ex-director's foundation

jphampton@sunherald.comJune 26, 2013 

The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources is selling two recreational fishing boats that are part of an ongoing investigation, but the state Auditor's Office refuses to say whether either boat -- the 36-foot Topaz or the 42-foot Californian -- is evidence in its investigations.

"We cannot comment on your question," spokesman Brett Kittredge said.

Later, he emailed a statement about "DMR boats in general."

"The State Auditor's Office appreciates the DMR Foundation board members for being cooperative and turning the boats over to DMR," the statement said. "The Auditor's Office will continue to protect the taxpayers' assets in these boats and hold those accountable who misuse taxpayer money."

The Auditor's Office and DMR have repeatedly refused to answer questions about the boats, or the foundation that leased them to DMR for hundreds of thousands of dollars, on the grounds they are part of an ongoing investigation.

State and federal authorities have been investigating millions of dollars in spending at the agency for months.

Those probes include the more than $1.46 million spent to repair and upgrade the two boats, neither of which DMR owned at the time.

DMR leased the boats from the Mississippi Marine Resources Foundation, which was set up by DMR's former executive director, Bill Walker.

The foundation obtained them from the Mississippi Gulf Coast YMCA.

At least two other foundation board members say they have nothing to do with the organization anymore, but it is listed in good standing by the Secretary of State's Office.

DMR has spent more than $1.46 million on the boats since 2007 and paid $18,000 a year for insurance. State Auditor Stacey Pickering said in April the foundation was taking steps to transfer ownership to the DMR.

DMR said it took ownership of the boats on June 3. The insurance policies end this month.

"This is an ongoing investigation on the civil and criminal side," Pickering said when he announced the transfer of the boats. "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."

The agency said last year it was using the boats to monitor artificial reefs deep in federal waters. Much of the money spent on the boats came from its artificial reefs program. Some of that money came from oil companies that donated oil rigs to be sunk and turned into reefs to attract fish.

The oil companies also donated money to maintain the rigs.

Walker said they also were used to entertain "people who can be helpful to our department."

Walker, who was fired by the DMR's governing board in January, denies any wrongdoing. He could not be reached Monday to comment on the boats or the foundation's status.

Bids on the boats, which were valued at $350,000 and $284,000 for insurance purposes, will be accepted until 3 p.m. July 15. Bids will be opened and read at the Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources meeting July 16.

DMR is working on a schedule to allow interested buyers to view the boats, though details are not yet available.

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