The chairman of the state Department of Marine Resources' governing board has resigned after his employer, the University of Southern Mississippi, expressed concerns about the perception of conflicts of interest.
Commission on Marine Resources Chairman Vernon Asper, who is a USM professor of marine sciences, had discussions with his employer about his continuing to serve on the commission and he resigned it Tuesday, a USM official said.
Asper, who has been on the CMR for 19 years, sent his resignation letter to Gov. Phil Bryant, who makes the appointments to the commission. It was effective Wednesday.
"This is a bittersweet decision for me, because I have enjoyed serving on the CMR but the current circumstances at the DMR have resulted in a situation wherein the university would be best served if I am no longer affiliated with the DMR," Asper wrote to Bryant. "Thank you for your continued and enthusiastic support for this agency and for the state of Mississippi."
CMR Vice President Jimmy Taylor will take over as chairman.
No perception of a conflict
USM Provost Denis Wiesenburg told the Sun Herald on Wednesday he spoke to Asper about his role with the CMR, but the decision was Asper's. Wiesenburg was concerned that because USM does contract research work with the DMR, there could be an appearance of conflict of interest between the university and the DMR.
"This is about making sure we are able to partner with the DMR without any perception on the public's part we are able to do so because one of the faculty members is a commissioner," Wiesenburg said.
The DMR is the focus of ongoing state and federal investigations of spending during the tenure of Bill Walker, the DMR's previous executive director. Walker has denied wrongdoing.
Asper's resignation came two days after the Interior Department's Inspector General issued a report that said the DMR misspent millions. The audit released Monday describes "widespread conflicts of interest" involving land purchases the DMR oversaw, deficient land appraisals, splitting of contracts that circumvented state bid laws, improper charges to Coastal Impact Assistance Program grants and grant awards that failed to meet CIAP criteria, among other issues.
Wiesenburg said USM has been discussing the situation with Asper for about six months and Asper has been and is a valuable member of the university's team. He said USM didn't make the decision because of any suspected wrongdoing on Asper's part.
Miller caught off guard
New DMR Director Jamie Miller said Wednesday the news of Asper's resignation had caught him off guard.
"I was surprised," Miller said. "I didn't anticipate Vernon would step down. I think Vernon was committed to being here to work through some of these difficult times."
Bryant's spokesman Mick Bullock, asked for a comment, responded: "Gov. Bryant appreciates Dr. Vernon Asper's service to the Commission on Marine Resources. The governor takes appointments to the commission very seriously and believes DMR's success is vital to the Gulf Coast and the management of Mississippi's coastal resources."
The five commissioners, representing commercial seafood processors, nonprofit environmental organizations, charter-boat operators, recreational fishermen and commercial fishermen, are appointed to for four-year terms. The new commissioner would serve out Asper's term, which ends June 30, 2014. Commissioners aren't paid, but are reimbursed for expenses of attending meetings.
Earlier this year, Bryant said he'd like to study doing away with the CMR and have the DMR's executive director report directly to him. He said he'd also like to study doing away with several other state boards and commissions and has been working with Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann on it.
There's been talk a bill to do just that could be ready by the next legislative session in January.