What's next with DMR investigations?

Subpoena gives clues to what federal investigators are looking into

Sun HeraldNovember 9, 2013 

The state's investigation of the state Department of Marine Resources is not over. That much is known.

But the direction of both the state and federal investigations remains something of a mystery.

"The case is not closed by any stretch of the imagination," state Auditor Stacey Pickering said Thursday. "We are going to follow the facts and leads as they continue but I do not expect any indictments to be released in the near future."

Pickering wouldn't offer even a hint, however, at where the investigation might be headed.

"I think the indictments (Thursday) speak for themselves," he said.

A subpoena by the federal prosecutor's office does shed some light on where federal investigators could head.

It was filed in the midst of a court battle between Pickering and the Sun Herald last week, and it seeks a raft of public records.

Most of the records have little to do with Thursday's indictments, which suggests federal investigators are looking into other matters at the DMR.

For instance, there was no mention of the Mississippi Marine Resources Foundation boats in the indictments but prosecutors subpoenaed "All paperwork, documents and records of money transfers, payments, invoices, contracts, copies of checks, check stubs and account of all money spent, including copies of leases on boats leased by the DMR from the (foundation) or the YMCA or YADA from 2003 through present. This should include records of expenditures by the DMR for repairs to the boats."

Spending public money on two recreational fishing boats owned by Bill Walker's private foundation is likely what piqued federal interest.

Walker created the foundation in 2004, about two years after he was appointed executive director of the DMR.

And the federal subpoena asks for essentially everything the state agency has pertaining to money spent on these boats, through the end of 2012, when the Sun Herald reported on the situation.

The foundation got the boats from charity boat-donation programs run by Walker's friend David Harris, former director of Blossman YMCA.

For a while, the DMR leased them directly from the YMCA or Harris, then at some point they were transferred to the foundation.

According to records the Sun Herald obtained, the DMR, under Walker's leadership, leased them and then set about using public money to renovate them. The state insured them and re-outfitted them. And Walker used them for fishing trips.

Over a five-year period, the state poured at least $1.46 million into the two boats.

Now those transactions are considered part of state and federal investigations and not available for public scrutiny.

Walker was fired in January; the state negotiated for the boats from the foundation, then sold them at a loss.

And state Auditor Pickering said: "The issue of boats and ownership of the boats, those issues, most of that has been resolved."

There was nothing about the boats in last week's federal or state indictments.

IMMS records sought

Federal prosecutors also sought documents related to the DMR and its dealings with the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies. The IMMS' Ocean Expo aquarium project figured in the indictments of Scott Walker, Bill Walker's son, and former D'Iberville City Manager Michael Janus, who are accused of conspiracy, fraud, bribery and money laundering in connection with a $3 million BP grant intended to pay for infrastructure for the aquarium project.

Another grant, this one from the Coastal Impact Assistance Program, also has its problems.

Auditors with the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Interior questioned why an $8 million grant was allowed to follow Sharon Walker, Bill Walker's wife, from her post at the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Laboratory to IMMS when she switched jobs. The grant was administered by the DMR during the time Bill Walker was executive director.

The DMR said USM was reluctant to move forward with an aquarium project, so the grant was re-awarded to IMMS, which had plans to build an aquarium.

But the auditor said USM disputed that account of the situation. A USM official said USM gave up the grant after "splitting up grants managed by the DMR executive director's wife into those that were 'the university's' and those that were 'hers,'" the auditors wrote.

The audit report listed the IMMS grant as one of four that were unresolved at the time the audit was released. CIAP money comes from offshore energy leases and is distributed through Interior's Department of Fish and Wildlife to states affected by offshore energy production.

IMMS responds

Moby Solangi, president and executive director of IMMS, said he has given federal investigators all the documents they asked for and is confident the grant will stay with IMMS.

"I think they've looked at everything," he said. "They got all the information. They looked at our audits. The OIG submitted a report to the agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife. U.S. Fish and Wildlife requested information from us on a variety of things. We provided them all the audits that were done.

"It's been many months and everything seems to be, from what we understand, operational."

Solangi said if any IMMS records were subpoenaed, they would have been provided by one of the other agencies.

"They already had all of that," he said.

The subpoena also sought credit card records, fuel receipts and various records dealing with money that came from Tidelands leases.

'601' account in question

And federal prosecutors subpoenaed all records related to a DMR account labeled 601. The Sun Herald learned that account, for all intents and purposes, was Bill Walker's exclusively.

The DMR gave the Sun Herald the portion of those records that were computerized, but not all the records.

Purchase orders from the agency call the 601 account the "Executive Office -- EDRP special account." EDRP indicates that Emergency Disaster Relief Program money fed that account.

DMR office correspondence makes it clear the account belonged to the boss. One document dated April 13, 2010, says, "Dr. Walker is the only authorized signature for 601."

But through records leaked to the newspaper, the Sun Herald learned about a few things Walker bought through the fund -- a $27,500 sponsorship for the 11th National Conference on Science, Policy and the Environment in Washington, D.C.; a work computer for the daughter of a friend and neighbor employed by the DMR; and the hiring of special contract workers.

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