Auditor wants secret court proceedings in public records case; Sun Herald objects

calee@sunherald.comNovember 11, 2013 

State Auditor Stacey Pickering has sent a secret memorandum to the judge in a public records lawsuit filed by the Sun Herald, but the newspaper objects to any consideration of the document.

Chancery Court Judge Jennifer Schloegel declared DMR records the auditor seized in January are public and must be copied for the Sun Herald. However, Auditor Stacey Pickering whisked off the records to Jackson, under federal grand jury subpoena, before the judge's orders could be followed.

In a motion filed Friday, Pickering asked Schloegel to amend her decision or stay the public records case until Attorney General Jim Hood can appeal to the state Supreme Court.

With the motion, he submitted a sealed legal memorandum for her to consider. A sealed court document would be unavailable to the public.

Pickering contends secre

cy is necessary because the case involves sensitive information from an investigation of wrongdoing at the DMR under former Executive Director Bill Walker.

The auditor's office and federal authorities late last week arrested Walker, six other former DMR employees, Walker's son Scott Walker and former D'Iberville City Manager Michael Janus on numerous criminal charges.

The Sun Herald's attorney, Henry Laird, argues in a motion filed Monday that the state's attorneys failed to follow the law for sealing a court record, which requires notice to the public and a hearing to decide whether secrecy is needed in the interest of justice.

Laird also said Pickering is in contempt of Schloegel's order declaring the records public.

The newspaper's motion says: "Prior to considering the relief (the auditor seeks), the Chancery Court should require the auditor to appear in a public hearing before the Chancery Court to explain his misconduct; to explain his complete failure and refusal to seek a protective order or an order quashing the federal grand jury subpoena; to explain what he did to comply with the Chancery Court order; and explain how and when he disobeyed the Chancery Court order by taking the records to Jackson, Miss., rather than to be inspected and copied by Gulf Publishing (the Sun Herald).

"Only afterward should the auditor be heard on his latest two motions."

Laird also points out that, if the auditor's memorandum is filed under seal, he will be unable to discuss its contents with his client, the newspaper.

The Sun Herald had filed public records requests for DMR Artificial Reef and Emergency Disaster Relief records before Pickering's office seized them for the investigation.

On Oct. 31, Schloegel found DMR created the records in the regular course of business. She ruled the records do not fall under a state Public Records Act exemption for investigative reports, as the auditor claims.

On Nov. 5, the judge and newspaper learned that, at some point, the auditor had taken the records to Jackson for the grand jury without making copies at the DMR's Biloxi offices as she had ordered.

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