Bill Walker didn't participate in transfer of foundation's boats, documents show

They say Walker was only foundation member who knew about them, was not involved in transfer to state

mmnewsom@sunherald.comAugust 14, 2013 

Documents that State Auditor Stacey Pickering released to the Sun Herald show former Mississippi Department of Marine Resources Director Bill Walker didn't participate in the transfer of his foundation's two boats to the state because his legal counsel advised him not to.

The documents also show Walker was the only member of the Mississippi Marine Resources Foundation, which owned the boats, who knew about the two vessels' existence.

Walker is listed as the foundation's registered agent, and opened a checking account for it and handled all activities without board meetings, board approval or any minutes being kept, the auditor's document says.

But other than what is in the documents released to the Sun Herald, the auditor's office won't release any other information on Walker's alleged activities.

"We cannot comment on the activities involving Dr. Walker because he is the subject of both a civil and criminal investigation by the State Auditor's Investigations Division," the document says.

Walker was DMR director while the agency leased and upgraded the foundation boats. He was fired in January amid an ongoing state investigation by Pickering's office and a federal investigation into DMR spending under his management. He has denied any wrongdoing.

The Sun Herald documented $1.4 million the DMR spent to lease, equip, upgrade and repair the boats -- the 42-foot Californian and the 36-foot Topaz. The agency recently sold the vessels.

Pickering's office released its annual report on misappropriated or misspent money earlier this month and it shows the state recovered only $296,096.60 from the sale of the two boats and the reuse of the equipment and electronics on board.

The auditor's office, along with the DMR, negotiated a deal to turn over the boats to the state and the DMR oversaw their sale. No demand has been issued for the rest of what was spent on the boats.

The Sun Herald requested the settlement agreement from the auditor's office Aug. 2 under the Mississippi Public Records Act. The auditor turned the agreement and other documents over within the mandated seven-working-day deadline.

The auditor's office copied DMR Director Jamie Miller on its response to the Sun Herald, which included the documents. After the release, the DMR sent a statement to the Sun Herald on Wednesday attributed to Miller that addresses the settlement.

"The settlement allowed us to take possession and dispose of the Foundation's assets, the Californian and Topaz. The settlement does not release anyone from liability of alleged wrongdoing," the statement said.

The timeline of events released to the Sun Herald gives insight into some of the steps in the investigation that led to the discovery of the boats.

"The Investigations Division discovered the existence of the (foundation) during the initial stages of its investigation," the document says. "The only assets found after reviewing bank records, contracts and other sources of information were the existence of the two boats. The Californian and Topaz were docked in sea/salt water where very little service and/or use had occurred since January 2013."

According to documents, the agreements for the boats was worked out in an April meeting. Pickering had entered the meeting prepared to issue a demand for all expenditures from 2009 to 2013, incurred as a result of the situation with the boats, which included purchase price, equipment, labor and repairs. But at the meeting, it became clear the group would be willing to turn the boats over.

At the meeting with Walker, Jerry Munro and Robert Culumber, all from the foundation, Pickering's office also learned Walker was the only member of the foundation who knew about the two boats the foundation owned and had leased to the DMR. In May, Munro and Culumber signed an agreement to donate the Californian and the Topaz to the state and, under the deal, the two were released from any civil penalties related to the boats. The auditor's office released the agreement, along with a timeline of events that show Walker didn't participate in the signing.

"Dr. Bill Walker, with advice from counsel, did not participate in the transfer of assets to DMR by either signing the 'Unanimous Consent' of the (foundation) board or the bills of sale," Pickering's office said.

Recently, when Pickering's office issued a report that showed the state had recovered less than $300,000 for the sale of boats, Pickering said he didn't second-guess the DMR's sale of the boats because that agency got all it could for them. He did say just because he hasn't yet issued a demand for the rest of what was spent on the boats, it wasn't necessarily over.

Pickering said his office is still investigating, along with federal authorities, the spending at the DMR under Walker's leadership and the settlement doesn't close the books on any of that.

"We have not issued a demand yet," Pickering told the Sun Herald on Aug. 2. "We have not come out with indictments or anything else. The investigation is still ongoing.

"At the appropriate time, we will take the appropriate actions. We're dealing with a multi-faceted, multi-agency task force. We're dealing with a complex investigation."

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