Editor’s note: This story originally published Aug. 31, 2014.
Weeds and bushes have claimed a residential lot the state Department of Marine Resources bought in 2010 from the parents of a DMR manager.
A pier has all but collapsed over Sioux Bayou, which curls around the lot’s southern edge. The property sits at the dead end of Fern Street, where modest homes overlook Krebs Lake and the Pascagoula River beyond.
DMR Executive Director Jamie Miller, appointed to head the agency in April 2013, inherited the lot and a host of headaches created by the malfeasance of predecessor Bill Walker. Walker was responsible for Mississippi’s Coastal Impact Assistance Program program.
Miller conceded this week the DMR should never have bought the lot from the parents of DMR manager Tina Shumate.
“Obviously,” Miller said, “there are still questions over the potential conflict and the way it was purchased.”
Also, he said, the lot is too small and isolated to serve its intended purpose: conservation, creation of green space and low-impact public use.
The DMR can do nothing with the lot, Miller said, until a federal review is finished. It bought the lot with a $245,000 grant from the CIAP, which Shumate headed. Her attorney insists she avoided the transaction.
A federal audit found the CIAP program rife with conflicts, including the lot purchase. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing recommendations for reform.
Penny Bartnicki, chief of Fish and Wildlife’s CIAP branch, said the agency is working on corrective actions. They were supposed to be finalized in October 2013, the audit says. Bartnicki said the process has taken longer than expected. The review, she said, should be wrapped up within the next year.
She said she understands the DMR’s hesitation to do anything with the property in the meantime.
Former Gov. Haley Barbour selected the DMR to manage CIAP money received by Mississippi and five other coastal states. The money comes from offshore oil leases. The federal audit of money spent from 2009 to 2012 questioned $30 million in spending — 77 percent of all funding sampled. The state, plus the three Coast counties, received a total of $99.8 million.
The audit found conflicts of interest started with secrecy at the DMR. The DMR listed its land acquisitions as one $10.8 million project. The public never had a chance to see or comment on individual properties it intended to buy, the audit said.
“This created an environment that allowed questionable land purchases to occur,” the audit said, “including the purchases of the home of (Shumate’s) parents, and a yacht club and boat storage facility.”
At one point, a lot owned by then-DMR Director Bill Walker’s son — also flooded by Hurricane Katrina on a dead-end, residential street in Jackson County — was on the list of CIAP-eligible properties. Bill Walker found other federal money for his son’s lot, the audit noted.
Walker gave the Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain $210,000 in federal money to buy the lot in 2011. Both he and his son recently pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and were sentenced to federal prison over the purchase. Bill Walker, it was later revealed, had co-signed a loan on the property.
The DMR drafted a 12-page plan, complete with maps, for the lot owned by Shumate’s parents. The agency justified buying the flood-prone lot to remove the house and any potential for future development. “This project,” the plan said, “will provide improved water quality and wildlife habitat benefits “
The plan said, “The site also has potential to allow public access to Krebs Lake and the Pascagoula River for canoes, kayaks and small motorized vessels.”
The narrow street the lot sits on has no sidewalks or off-street parking.
“I would not have pursued the purchase of this property,” Miller said. “We would want to have larger, contiguous tracts.”
At least one neighbor thought the DMR intended to buy more lots on the street for a conservation area. Curtiss Coleman, who lives across from the property, said he called the agency a few years back and asked about its plans. He said he was told the DMR was looking into buying the whole street, but the agency needed more money.
The lot is now a wildlife habitat of sorts.
“I have seen a coyote, rabbits and some nutria,” Coleman said. “There hasn’t been any public use out there.”
Fruit trees still grow on the property, too.
“It looks like a mess right now,” Coleman said.