Newspaper seeks contempt order in records dispute

The Associated PressNovember 28, 2013 

— State Auditor Stacey Pickering says his hands are tied by a federal subpoena that prevents his releasing documents seized from state Department of Marine Resources to a Gulf Coast newspaper.

The Sun Herald has asked a judge to hold Pickering and his office in civil contempt of court for failing to turn over records it has sought. .

The newspaper sued Pickering for access to records that his office had seized from the MDMR as part of an ongoing state and federal investigation of the agency. Harrison County Chancery Judge Jennifer Schloegel ruled last month that the records are public, but she didn't immediately act on the newspaper's request for a contempt order.

In a response filed Wednesday to the newspaper's contempt motion, Pickering's lawyers said the auditor's office has to abide by the federal grand jury subpoena.

"Obviously, the United States believes that releasing the subject records would prejudice the prosecution of the indictment involving the Department of Marine Resources for which those records were sought," Jackson attorney John G. Corlew writes in court documents.

"The audit defendants are charged by Mississippi law to investigate and bring to justice public corruption. The United States has taken the position that release of the subject records would hamper brining public corruption to justice. Its authority — through a duly constituted federal grand jury — is recognized by law to be superior to any contrary state law, including a state court order," Corlew wrote.

Pickering asks that the contempt petition be dismissed.

Pickering has claimed the records are exempt from disclosure under an exception to the state Public Records Act. He has said the case involves sensitive information about alleged wrongdoing at the MDMR under its former executive director, Bill Walker.

After Schloegel ruled last month that the documents are public records, she learned that a federal grand jury in Jackson had issued a subpoena for them. She issued a protective order directing the auditor's office to provide the records to her court so they could be copied, but the Sun Herald reports the records were sent to the grand jury instead.

U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett has set a June 2 trial date for Walker and his son, Scott Walker, and two former MDMR officials, Joseph Zeigler Jr. and Sheila "Tina" Shumate, on federal corruption charges.

Scott Walker and Michael Janus, the former city manager for D'Iberville, are charged in a separate case with fraudulently using $180,000 of that city's money. Starrett set a March 10 trial date in that case.

Each has pleaded not guilty. The trials will be held in Gulfport.

Information from: The Sun Herald,

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