Sun Herald loses DMR records battle on appeal

The state Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources rightly denied the Sun Herald access to administrative records it had turned over for a state investigation of former DMR director Bill Walker’s administration.

Five of nine appellate judges decided the DMR records fell under an criminal investigations exemption to the Public Records Act because the State Auditor’s Office had subpoenaed the documents.

“I am extremely glad the Mississippi Court of Appeals has ruled and vindicated the actions of this office and the conduct of our professional staff,” State Auditor Stacey Pickering said in a news release. “I appreciate the press’s efforts to maintain open and transparent records on behalf of the citizens of Mississippi, but today’s ruling demonstrates that my office took great measures to protect the integrity of the investigative process of our state and federal court system.”

The opinion reverses the ruling of Chancery Court Judge Jennifer Schloegel, who found the DMR created the records in the regular course of business, not as investigative records that would be exempt from public disclosure.

Schloegel ordered the records turned over to the Sun Herald, but the Auditor’s Office instead spirited them away to a federal grand jury in Jackson. As a result, Schloegel found State Auditor Stacey Pickering in contempt of court for failing to follow her ruling.

The Appeals Court set aside Schloegel’s contempt ruling, plus fines she levied against public officials involved in the case: Pickering, Attorney General Jim Hood, four assistant attorneys general, and auditor’s investigators Chris Lott and David Huggins.

U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett also found the records were public when he ordered them returned from federal court in Jackson to Gulfport for the Sun Herald’s review.

Sun Herald Attorney Henry Laird said Tuesday: “I’m very disappointed, particularly after the federal court ruled that the records were nonexempt public records and turned them over to the newspaper. The Court of Appeals disagrees with the federal court, and the newspaper is now considering what steps, if any, it will take.”