Mississippi auditor seeks secret hearing in Sun Herald's attempt to get DMR records

Sun Herald suing to obtain agency's spending records

jphampton@sunherald.comOctober 25, 2013 

AMANDA McCOY/SUN HERALD State Auditor Stacey Pickering announces during a press conference in April that the Mississippi Marine Resources Foundation is taking steps to transfer two boats it owns to the Mississippi Department of Resources.

AMANDA MCCOY — SUN HERALD Buy Photo

GULFPORT -- The State Auditor's Office wants a secret hearing on its attempt to seal records from the Department of Marine Resources investigation.

In a motion filed Friday in the Second Judicial District Chancery Court, State Auditor Stacey Pickering asked the court to seal its motion and all filings and orders in the Sun Herald's attempt to obtain DMR spending records.

Pickering's attorney, Melissa C. Patterson, a special assistant attorney general, argued the records are part of grand jury proceedings and therefore cannot be revealed.

Patterson argued the matter involves Harrison County Grand Jury proceedings, which she says can't be revealed because of the state's rules for circuit and county courts.

She cited one of those rules, which says in part:

"No grand juror, witness, attorney general, district attorney, county attorney, other prosecuting attorney, clerk,

sheriff, or other office of the court shall disclose any action or proceeding in relation to the indictment before the finding of an indictment or within six months thereafter or before the defendant is arrested or gives bail or recognizance.

"If such information is disclosed, the disclosing person may be found in contempt of court punishable by fine or imprisonment."

She also argued the "underlying Circuit Court matter is entirely in an investigative phase and any release of grand jury information would cause undue harm and prejudice to the investigation and potential subjects."

State and federal investigators have been investigating the DMR for months. A Sun Herald investigation and an audit by the Department of Interior Office of Inspector General found questionable spending practices at the agency.

The Sun Herald sued the DMR in January seeking spending records. In August, it asked Chancery Judge Jennifer Schloegel to add the Auditor's Office to the suit.

Although Patterson said the filing was "submitted under seal", it was on the Mississippi Electronic Courts website where the Sun Herald obtained it.

A hearing on the Sun Herald's suit is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Wednesday before Schloegel in Bay St. Louis.

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