BAY ST. LOUIS -- After a day-long hearing closed to the public for several hours, Chancery Judge Jennifer Schloegel said Wednesday she will rule later on a public records lawsuit the Sun Herald filed in January against the state Department of Marine Resources and State Auditor's Office.
The Sun Herald filed requests with the DMR in November and January for agency financial records. Using language similar to the wording in the newspaper's written request, the State Auditor's Office then subpoenaed the records and took them.
The auditor's office argues the documents are now investigative reports exempt from the state Public Records Act.
"The character of the documents did not change," Melissa Patterson, an assistant attorney general assigned to the auditor's office, told Schloegel. "It's where they're located that makes them exempt. While they are with a law enforcement agency, or compiled by a law enforcement agency, they meet the definition of an inves
The DMR says it has produced 22,000 pages of documents on computer disc for the Sun Herald, but can't provide other records because the auditor's office has the paper originals and there are no copies.
"We can't produce what we don't have and we didn't violate the Public Records Act," Joe Runnels, an assistant attorney general assigned to the DMR, said during the hearing.
The Sun Herald's attorney, Henry Laird, said the auditor's office should have copied the records it needed and left the originals with the DMR. He said the DMR generated the records in the course of doing business, not as part of an investigation.
"We say it's past time for the people's records to be seen by them," Laird said. "These are the people's records and the State Auditor's Office has a duty to preserve them for the people of the state.
" The fact that they can be used in a criminal proceeding does not deprive the public of the right to inspect these records."
Earlier in the day, Schloegel closed the hearing in order to hear how the records relate to a secret grand jury investigation involving the DMR. The Sun Herald has reported that the auditor's office and Federal Bureau of Investigation have been looking at the spending under the regime of former DMR Executive Director Bill Walker, who was fired in January.
The Sun Herald also has reported and written in-depth stories about questionable spending at the DMR under Walker.
The newspaper wanted to examine financial records for the DMR's Artificial Reef and post-Katrina Emergency Disaster Relief programs. The newspaper examined and reported on the portion of those records that were on computer disc, but not on the paper records.
For example, the newspaper was able to view monthly credit card statements from the DMR, but not the receipts that would detail what was purchased.