OCEAN SPRINGS -- State Auditor Stacey Pickering said Wednesday he believes the ongoing probes of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources could start to have some resolutions beginning this fall and investigators may reveal evidence of a "culture of corruption."
The auditor spoke to the Ocean Springs Rotary Club about the work of his office and also fielded a question from the crowd about the ongoing state and federal investigations of the embattled agency. The auditor said the investigation could yield some indictments and court appearances in the coming months. His take on the situation is the investigation will likely reveal a "culture of corruption."
"What I see happen a lot of times is a culture of complacency develops," Pickering said. "It's not one big thing. It is just everybody gets used to it. 'Oh he's a good guy, she's a good girl and that's the way we've always done things.' No one is checking, no one is verifying. Then little programs start happening and little people start taking money and taking this and doing this and it becomes a culture of corruption. It's a migration. I think that's ultimately what we are going to find out is that it kind of became a culture of corruption."
The Investigative Audit Division of Pickering's office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are investigating the DMR's spending under former Director Bill Walker's leadership. The U.S. Interior Department also
audited the agency. Walker, who had headed the agency since 2002, was fired in January amid the investigation of the agency's management. He has denied wrongdoing.
Pickering told the Rotary Club his office became aware the feds were involved last year after his office received a call notifying them about the death of a DMR employee.
"(The investigation) is a joint task force involving the feds as well as myself," Pickering said. "We were in there originally and then I'll be honest with you, we bumped into one another.
"Tragically, there was a DMR employee who committed suicide, took her own life. Now we had a phone call on that and I'm like, it didn't ring a bell. I called the head of my investigators and said, 'can you find out if we interviewed this person?' And, long story, (federal authorities) interviewed her. We had not. That is when we found out (the federal government) was in, we were in."
Speaking with the Sun Herald after the meeting, Pickering said he doesn't believe the death, which he called a "tragic situation," is connected to the investigation.
"There is no reason for us to think the two are related," Pickering said.
He declined to discuss Wednesday whether his office had interviewed the woman's relatives and also declined to discuss the case in much further detail. He wouldn't comment on the number of people he expects could wind up in court following the investigation, which he said would be an issue for prosecutors and grand juries to decide.
Pickering said he would hope to see some action on the case by this fall though.
"I hope we're moved from the investigation to the next phase to get some conclusion here," Pickering said. "Let's start clearing some people or let's start seeing moves go to the grand jury to start seeing some indictments. That would be fair for the citizens of Mississippi with a state agency of this caliber, but also for individuals and their families involved in this case."
Gov. Phil Bryant selected Jamie Miller to become the new DMR director earlier this year. Pickering said his office is working with Miller to get the agency's finances back in good shape.
"We are working with them to get their financial house in order, as well as working on the investigation," Pickering said. "I'm hoping it's going to be resolved this fall."