Judge: Sanctions against Pickering, Hood and state attorneys warranted

calee@sunherald.comJuly 14, 2014 

TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD/2013Chancery Court Judge Jennifer Schloegel listens as State Auditor Stacey Pickering answers questions of Gulf Publishing attorney Henry Laird during Pickering's contempt hearing in Gulfport.

TIM ISBELL — SUN HERALD Buy Photo

GULFPORT -- Chancery Judge Jennifer Schloegel on Monday denied Attorney General Jim Hood's request to set aside her May ruling that the DMR and State Auditor's Office willfully violated the Public Records Act, warranting sanctions against Hood, Auditor Stacey Pickering and assistant attorneys general involved.

The State Auditor's Office is appealing Schloegel's ruling to the Mississippi Supreme Court. On behalf of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, Attorney General Jim Hood asked Schoegel to reconsider.

Private attorneys are now defending Pickering and his investigators, the auditor's office, the DMR and the assistant attorneys general. Hood is represented by Special Assistant Attorney General Margaret Parish Ellis.

Hood's request, Schloegel wrote, amounted to "an effort to split hairs" and only reinforced her belief that Hood and his assistant attorneys' general engaged in "manipulative legal maneuvering" from the start.

The Sun Herald fought in court for 17 months for DMR business records. Schloegel ruled at the end of a trial that the records were public because they had not been compiled during the course of an auditor's criminal investigation of DMR, as claimed by Pickering and assistant attorneys general representing both agencies.

Schloegel also found that Pickering and the state agencies acted in bad faith, ordering them to cover the Sun Herald's legal fees and expenses. She imposed the maximum fine of $100 each against Pickering and his investigators, and Hood and assistant attorneys general, for violating the public records law.

"They were penalized for their part in a multi-faceted and prolonged denial of access to public records," her most recent order says.

Schloegel also noted that Hood, Pickering and the state agency attorneys were not sanctioned for criminal contempt "although some of their actions may have caused them to be complicit in both criminal and civil contempt."

Schloegel said she did not consider a civil penalty against Assistant US Attorney John Dowdy, who heads the Southern District criminal division, because he was not directly involved in the public records lawsuit -- "at least not in such a way that has been made known to the court," she said.

Schloegel found that Dowdy had needlessly subpoenaed the records to a federal grand jury -- after she ordered the documents released -- simply to keep them out of the public's hands.

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