Unclaimed boat intended for former Mississippi DMR head's nonprofit, YADA says

Company claims DMR owns vessel named in lawsuit

calee@sunherald.comAugust 28, 2013 

GULFPORT -- An unclaimed boat that prompted a lawsuit was intended for a nonprofit group headed by Bill Walker, former executive director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, an officer from another organization said Wednesday.

Melba Harris of Ocean Springs said her nonprofit group, YADA Inc., accepted the boat as a donation at Walker's request. The 44-foot aluminum hull boat was supposed to be transferred to Walker's organization, she said, once it had nonprofit status. Nonprofit status allows donors to take tax write-offs for gifts.

Walker served as executive director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, a state agency headquar

tered in Biloxi, at the same time he established the nonprofit Mississippi Marine Resources Foundation. He was fired in January amid ongoing federal and state investigations of the DMR under his management. Walker has denied any wrongdoing.

Harris said she thought Walker's private foundation and the DMR were one in the same. She said the Laura C was intended for the nonprofit organization.

The Laura C wound up at Competition Marine in Gulfport. DMR employees delivered it there, according to a Circuit Court lawsuit.

Competition is suing the DMR over $93,325 in refitting and repair costs, plus storage and maintenance fees and legal costs.

DMR denies ownership of the boat, the lawsuit says. Competition has been unable to locate a registered owner. The company is hoping to recover at least a portion of its costs by seizing the Laura C and selling it at public auction.

YADA president David Harris, Melba Harris' husband, said in a 2009 letter to the donor that YADA was grateful for the boat and would not sell it before 2015. Harris ran a boat-donation program for years at the YMCA, then at the charity he created, Youth Alternative Development Activities.

"We never physically had the boat," Melba Harris said. "We never spent any money on it. It was just paperwork. It costs a lot of money to keep a big boat. We never spent one cent on it. Ever. We never took possession of it physically."

Walker would not comment Wednesday on the Laura C.

Jamie Miller, the current executive director of DMR, said all the agency's information on the Laura C was transferred to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and State Auditor's Office before he started work in April.

"I did not know about the lawsuit until I read about it in the paper this morning," Miller said. He said he met with Joe Runnels, an assistant attorney general assigned to the DMR, to confirm all the agency's information about the Laura C had been turned over to investigators.

He would not discuss if or why DMR might have had the vessel.

"Unfortunately, I am not going to get into those details," he said, "because I have not spoken today with anybody in the auditor's office or with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and just want to continue to cooperate with them, and so I don't want to get into any details about that vessel, other than to say that we have just fully given all the information we know about to those investigators."

Miller said he does not know who owns the Laura C. The DMR did not have a lease on the boat, either, he said. The DMR leased two other boats, the Californian and Topaz, from Walker's foundation while he headed the state agency.

The DMR spent more than $1.46 million to repair and upgrade the two boats. Competition Marine often worked on the boats, DMR records show. The DMR recently sold the boats to the highest bidders for $126,114.05. The DMR kept equipment it had installed on the boats.

The foundation had acquired both boats from David Harris.

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