Sun Herald will get first look at Mississippi DMR records Monday

jphampton@sunherald.comDecember 27, 2013 

GULFPORT -- Sixty boxes of Department of Marine Resources records have been returned to the Coast and are under lock and key at the Harrison County Courthouse in Gulfport.

The records were driven from Jackson by Chris Lott, a special agent in Auditor Stacey Pickering's office. Handy Dandy Moving Service of Gulfport unloaded the boxes and brought them to the second-floor courtroom of Chancery Judge Jennifer Schloegel. There, Lott signed them over to evidence technicians with the Harrison County Sheriff's Office to preserve the chain of custody. Some of the records could be evidence in federal cases against former DMR Director Bill Walker; his son, Scott; former DMR officials Tina Shumate and Joe Ziegler; and former D'Iberville City Manager Michael Janus. Five ex-DMR employees, including Shumate, also were indicted on state embezzlement charges. Shumate also faces a state charge of witness tampering.

The records are the subject of a long-running dispute between the Sun Herald, which said the records belonged to the public, and the DMR and Auditor's Office, which had argued the records were part of investigations and should remain secret. Judge Schloegel ruled in October the records are public documents and ordered Pickering's office to hand them over. Before that happened, though, the records were subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney's Office for a grand jury sitting in Jackson. The records then were taken to Jackson in the middle of the night.

After the Sun Herald asked Schloegel to hold Pickering in contempt for moving the records, he asked the federal court to release them.

U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett ruled Dec. 20 the records should be public and not subject to grand jury rules that could have kept them secret.

"Justice has prevailed, and the public's faith in the rule of law has been restored," Executive Editor Stan Tiner said. "Mississippi is a state whose leaders too often try to shield its citizens from the truth of government, including records as fundamental as those collected in the ordinary conduct of public business, such as the many boxes of state Department of Marine Resources records that have been returned to a courtroom in Gulfport."

County officials had the locks changed to insure that no one could enter the courtroom unsupervised and tamper with the records.

Sun Herald reporters will begin examining and copying the records Monday morning. The copies will be reviewed by Schloegel, who will decide if they need to be redacted before they are released. The originals will be returned to the boxes they came from.

Although few of the boxes, which were slightly damaged, were open, there likely are thousands of paper records in them. The DMR already gave the Sun Herald 22,000 pages of digital records and the paper records are expected to be companions to many of them.

At least one set of records contains emails between auditors and administrators of the Coastal Impact Assistance Program, which was the subject of a scathing report by the Department of Interior Office of Inspector General. Among other complaints, the OIG found widespread conflicts of interest at DMR involving land purchases the DMR oversaw, deficient land appraisals, splitting of contracts that circumvented state bid laws, grant awards that failed to meet CIAP criteria and improper charges to CIAP grants.

Other boxers appear to contain procurement-card receipts. Digital records obtained by the Sun Herald contained procurement-card statements but just the amount paid and no details about what was purchased.

The courthouse will be closed Tuesday and Wednesday but the paper expects to resume work on the documents Thursday and Friday.

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