DMR asks judge to reverse sanctions, legal fees in records case

calee@sunherald.comJune 9, 2014 

BILOXI -- The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources has hired an outside attorney who is requesting that Chancery Court Judge Jennifer Schloegel alter her judgment in a records lawsuit the Sun Herald filed against the DMR, state auditor's office and Auditor Stacey Pickering.

Schloegel found records the DMR and State Auditor's Office denied the newspaper are public records. She also found the DMR and Auditor's Office acted in "bad faith" during 19 months of litigation and should pay the newspaper's legal fees and expenses of $38,000.

Schloegel levied sanctions -- for "willful and wrongful denials" of the records request -- of $100 each, the maximum allowed under the state Public Records Act, against State Auditor Stacey Pickering, investigative audit division Director David Huggins, auditor's investigator Chris Lott, Attorney General Jim Hood, and four assistant attorneys general who represented the DMR and auditor's office.

Biloxi attorney Ron Peresich, representing the DMR and its two sanctioned attorneys, Joe Runnels and Sandy Chesnut, argues the DMR should not be subject to attorney's fees or sanctions because grand jury subpoenas prohibited the attorneys and agency from complying with the Sun Herald records requests.

Schloegel found the DMR, Pickering and the state auditor's office used a cloak of grand jury secrecy to hide records the DMR produced in the daily course of business. The records, she concluded, were not part of any

investigative report the auditor's office compiled during a probe of wrongdoing at the DMR, as the auditor and DMR claimed.

Runnels and Chesnut have withdrawn as DMR attorneys in the case. Hood, whose office under state law approves legal contracts, agreed to hire Peresich to represent DMR for $200 an hour, Hood's office said.

Hood has filed a separate motion, joined by Assistant Attorney General Harold Pizzetta, to have the $100 sanction against him dismissed because he was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Hood did get involved in the litigation, however, at one point telling Schloegel she might be subject to federal charges of contempt or obstruction of justice if she tried to enforce her court order that the records be turned over and copied for the newspaper, her final judgment in the case said.

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