Sun Herald will argue Pickering's contempt hearing should be public
By ANITA LEE
GULFPORT -- The Mississippi Supreme Court on Tuesday denied State Auditor Stacey Pickering's motion to stay a Chancery Court lawsuit the Sun Herald filed against him, which means a contempt hearing against Pickering and his office should go forward as scheduled at 9:30 a.m. today at the Harrison County Courthouse in Gulfport.
Pickering has filed a motion asking that Chancery Judge Jennifer Schloegel close today's hearing to the public. The newspaper will argue the hearing should remain open.
The Sun Herald is asking that Pickering and his office be held in contempt of court for failing to produce public records as the court had earlier ordered and the auditor had agreed to do.
The Sun Herald sued the auditor for access to business records the newspaper had requested from the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources in November and December 2012. After the newspaper requested the records, the Auditor's Office subpoenaed and seized them as part of an ongoing investigation of the DMR.
Schloegel ruled Oct. 31 the records are public because the DMR created them in the regular course of business. The auditor maintained the documents became investigative records once he seized them, but testimony showed
the Auditor's Office had not altered the records in any way or compiled them into an investigative report. The records are from the DMR's artificial reef and emergency disaster relief programs.
Pickering agreed the records would be copied and given to the newspaper after Schloegel ruled they are public. However, they were instead whisked off to Jackson under federal grand jury subpoena the night of Nov. 4.
Schloegel now questions whether Assistant U.S. Attorney John Dowdy subpoenaed the records, which federal investigators had already had ample opportunity to examine, to keep them out of the public's view.
Four assistant attorneys general are involved in the case for the state, but private attorney John Corlew of Jackson has been brought in to represent Pickering and the Auditor's Office at today's hearing. Corlew is charging the state $175 an hour.
The hearing is expected to begin in open court, with arguments that it should be closed.
Court hearings can be closed only if clear and convincing evidence shows an open hearing would jeopardize justice and no reasonable alternative to closures exists.
Pickering argues the hearing will involve secret grand jury investigations about the DMR. Sun Herald attorney Henry Laird contends the hearing will cover why the auditor violated a judge's order, with no need to delve into secret grand jury proceedings.
Federal and state indictments against former employees of the DMR, including a federal indictment against former Executive Director Bill Walker, were issued recently.