Potential conflict sidelines Judge Louis Guirola in DMR cases

calee@sunherald.comNovember 12, 2013 

GULFPORT -- Louis Guirola Jr., chief federal judge for Mississippi's Southern District, has clarified he reassigned criminal cases involving former employees of the state Department of Marine Resources because of a potential conflict of interest.

Guirola had been set to preside over two cases involving former DMR employees and others. But his office said one of the attorneys in the case, Joe Sam Owen of Gulfport, represents a Guirola family member in an unrelated civil matter.

Owen also represents former DMR chief of staff Joe Ziegler, who is charged in one of the DMR cases. The defendants in the cases are expected to enter not guilty pleas this morning in U.S. District Court.

U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett will now preside over the cases, with Magistrate Judge Michael T. Parker handling pretrial matters. Starrett and Parker usually preside over cases in Hattiesburg.

In one DMR case, Bill Walker and Scott Walker are charged with five crimes: one count each of conspiracy to defraud the federal government, fraud, and conspiracy to commit mail fraud, and two counts each of mail fraud. Ziegler faces one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and two counts of mail fraud. Tina Shumate, former DMR director of coastal resource management and planning, is charged with one count each of conspiracy to defraud the federal government and fraud.

The charges against the Walkers and Shumate stem from a land transaction involving property the father and son had an interest in. Shumate persuaded a nonprofit group to buy the land with money supplied by the DMR, the indictment says.

The charges against the Walkers and Ziegler involve a private foundation Bill Walker founded in 2004, about two years after he became DMR director. The indictment alleges the three funneled money intended for the state to Bill Walker's foundation, then used the money to enrich themselves.

In a second case, Scott Walker and Michael Janus, former D'Iberville city manager, each face five charges: conspiracy to defraud the federal government, fraud, bribery and two counts of money laundering.

The charges involve a $180,000 consulting fee Janus, as D'Iberville's city manager, allegedly arranged for Scott Walker.

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