Despite officials acting in ‘bad faith,’ DMR records reach newspaper

More than 17 months after the Sun Herald requested business records from what was then a scandal-ridden agency, the state Department of Marine Resources, those records have finally reached the newspaper’s office.

It took a lawsuit on the Sun Herald’s part and a judge with the courage to stand up to State Auditor Stacey Pickering, Attorney General Jim Hood, the assistant attorneys general Hood mustered, and Assistant U.S. Attorney John Dowdy, who applied the federal government’s weight when the judge refused to yield.

Earlier this week, Chancery Judge Jennifer Schloegel released a 67-page opinion that detailed every trick played by state leaders, their attorneys and the federal prosecutor. She didn’t miss one.

They issued grand jury subpoenas not because state and federal grand juries needed the records while investigating the DMR, she found, but to keep them from the public. Assistant attorneys general for the DMR and auditor wasted a circuit judge’s time securing an order to release records in “the DMR’s possession” when they knew the DMR no longer had all the records and they would not be released, she noted.

They agreed to turn over the records when, in October 2013, she declared them public.

She wrote in her opinion: “The events that took place next raise serious questions of contempt, ethics, professionalism and duty of candor to the court, misconduct, bad faith and abuse of grand jury process.”

Auditor in contempt

Instead of copying the records, Auditor Stacey Pickering’s office worked with Dowdy, who had them subpoenaed by a federal grand jury. Learning this at a late hour, Schloegel on Nov. 4 ordered the records delivered the next morning to her courtroom. Instead, the auditor’s office spirited the records away in the night to a federal grand jury in Jackson that had no need for them and, indeed, might never have examined them.

In court the next morning, Schloegel found Pickering in civil contempt of court for failing to follow her order.

Hood tried to dissuade her, threatening later that day in a telephone call that she might be subjected to federal charges of obstruction of justice and contempt. This only raised questions in Schloegel’s mind about Hood’s intentions. Rather than working toward compliance with her order, she wondered if Hood and his attorneys general helped secure the federal subpoena and remove the records from her court.

U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett sided with Schloegel, returning the records in December to the Chancery Court.

Examining the records

And so, 60 battered banker’s boxes sat in two spare rooms on the second floor of the Harrison County courthouse in Gulfport. Schloegel allowed journalists from the Sun Herald to examine them in late December 2013 and early January 2014.

Four journalists from the newspaper plowed through the boxes over the course of more than two weeks. They documented travels of agency employees, showed questionable spending of the type the newspaper had covered in previous stories and raised questions about the stewardship of former DMR Executive Director Bill Walker, now a felon who awaits sentencing.

The journalists copied the records they thought might be of public interest and took notes. They did so under the watchful eyes of a sheriff’s deputy and an investigator from Pickering’s office. The records, and even the journalists’ notes, had to be left with the court, though, so any confidential information -- Social Security and credit card numbers -- could be redacted.

Unanswered questions

The newspaper picked up the records Friday afternoon from the offices of its attorney, Henry Laird. Schloegel released them after she issued her opinion Monday. She found the DMR and the auditor’s office violated the state’s Public Records Act by withholding the records. She further found the DMR, the auditor’s office and Pickering acted in bad faith and ordered them to cover the Sun Herald’s legal fees and expenses.

In her order, Schloegel said the public officials are to pay these fees not just under the Public Records Act, but also the Mississippi Litigation Accountability Act, which prohibits frivolous lawsuits and defenses.

“She put in the extra mile or two or three,” Laird said. “This judge worked hard on this case. Her opinion is a beautiful document. She spent hours and hours of work on this.”

She fined Pickering, his investigators, Hood and his attorneys general $100 each, the maximum allowed under the Public Records Act.

A box of records now sits on a file cabinet in the Sun Herald newsroom. Did the newspaper see all the records the state auditor seized and kept from the public for so long? This question we may never be able to answer.

Anita Lee: 228-896-2331, @calee99