Mississippi assistant attorney general's sons benefitted from grant he applied for at DMR

jphampton@sunherald.comJuly 22, 2013 

JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALDSandy Chesnut, assistant attorney general assigned to the Department of Marine Resources, on Jan. 15, 2013.

JOHN FITZHUGH — SUN HERALD Buy Photo

BILOXI -- An assistant attorney general assigned to the state Department of Marine Resources applied for a federal Coastal Impact Assistance Program grant that resulted in contracts for his two sons.

The sons were apparently under age 18 when their contracts to work on the grant's program were signed because both their parents -- Assistant Attorney General Joe Runnels and his wife, Vicki, co-signed the documents.

Joe Runnels refused to talk about the grant project.

"I would love to talk with you, Paul, except for the AG's office has a policy about not giving interviews to the press," he said. "So you'd have to talk to Jan Schaefer up at the attorney general's office."

Attorney General Jim Hood turned down a request for an interview, but a few days later, Schaefer released a statement that said the office found no violation of law.

The statement also explained the genesis of the grant:

"The Coastal Impact Assistance Program grant MS. R. 738 traces its origin to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. FEMA was balking at cleaning up the Mississippi Sound and complained that the State had received millions of dollars in CIAP funds, but had never before attempted to address the issue of non-storm related debris. Our attorney, facilitating between FEMA and DMR, proposed that if FEMA would clean the Mississippi Sound the DMR would apply for CIAP funding to monitor for non-storm related debris. A formal agreement was entered into between FEMA and the DMR requiring the DMR to seek funding. The Sound was cleaned and approximately two years later, Minerals Management Service approved a $15K per year CIAP grant to monitor for the source of non-storm related debris.

"DMR staff hired the sons of one of our attorneys to do the work. Our attorney did not hire them. In fact, he has no authority to hire employees either for the AG's office or for a state agency. Although our preliminary review of the matter did not reveal a violation of law, we would await the findings of any other agencies which might be reviewing."

"The director of DMR is adopting policies going forward which go well beyond state law conflict-of-interest requirements," Schaefer said. "The Attorney General fully supports this effort."

An audit released earlier this month roundly criticized the DMR for its handling of the CIAP program, saying among other things, conditions at the DMR "allowed grant recipients to operate in an environment rife with conflicts of interest."

Although Runnels applied for the CIAP grant to fund a program called Debris Monitoring and Removal, it was awarded to the DMR, the agency that manages the CIAP program for the state. And Runnels didn't hire his two sons. Former Executive Director Bill Walker signed the contract between Runnels' sons and the DMR. Walker was fired in January in the midst of the audit and criminal investigations by state and federal authorities. Walker has denied any wrongdoing.

Writing grant applications is not among the myriad duties listed for Runnels and Assistant Attorney Sandy Chesnut, who's also assigned to the DMR.

According to the attorney general's website, some of their duties are drafting legislative amendments to marine resources-related statutes and Commission on Marine Resources ordinances, drafting and reviewing contracts and advising DMR personnel and the CMR on compliance and enforcement issues.

"Our attorneys did a lot of extra work following Katrina," Schaefer wrote in an email. "In this case, the grant application was required by the memorandum of agreement, which our attorneys helped negotiate between Homeland Security and the Department of Marine Resources."

At one point, Chesnut was listed as manager and coordinator for the project paid for with the grant.

That was on May 21, 2009. In earlier documents about the project, including one dated Jan. 23, 2009, Runnels was listed as the project lead/point of contact or the project manager. By the time of a performance report for May 29, 2010, to June 30, 2012, Jeff Clark, the director of the Bureau of Coastal Preserves at DMR, was listed as program manager.

It's also unclear how or why the Runnels children were chosen.

There is no evidence the jobs/contracts were advertised or that there was any competition for the job.

The contracts say the Runnels children were selected "based, in part, upon the contractor's special skills and expertise" but it doesn't say what those skills and expertise are. Both signed contracts for two periods -- June 8, 2009, to June 30, 2010, and July 2, 2010, to June 30, 2011, -- that called for them to be paid up to $4,840 each of those years at a rate of $11 an hour. It is unclear how much they actually made.

The project apparently continued until spring 2013, but there are no other contracts included in the information provided by the DMR under a Freedom of Information request. There were pay sheets for other workers but it appears only part of those workers' pay came from this project.

It appears the Runnels kids rode in a canoe to spot and photograph litter at various locations along the Coast.

A survey-log report for work performed in 2010 includes several lists of items found on various days. For instance, on July 18, 2010, they reported finding three plastic bags, a plastic fork and "misc." That report includes photographs of debris and litter in the water.

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