Head of Mississippi DMR fired amid state, federal investigation

Former Mississippi Department of Marine Resources Director Bill Walker and his wife, Sharon, leave the federal courthouse in Hattiesburg on June 16, 2014, after Bill was sentenced for five years in prison on charges of conspiring to defraud the government. At right is Walker’s son, Scott.
Former Mississippi Department of Marine Resources Director Bill Walker and his wife, Sharon, leave the federal courthouse in Hattiesburg on June 16, 2014, after Bill was sentenced for five years in prison on charges of conspiring to defraud the government. At right is Walker’s son, Scott. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com File

Editor’s note: This story originally published Jan. 16, 2013.

The governing board of Mississippi’s Department of Marine Resources on Tuesday fired Executive Director Bill Walker, who is under state and federal investigation. Walker didn’t attend the meeting and couldn’t be reached for comment.

Now the Commission on Marine Resources must find an executive director to replace him.

Agency attorneys have confirmed DMR spending during Walker’s tenure is the subject of a state grand jury probe. Commission Chairman Vernon Asper has said the Federal Bureau of Investigation also is investigating.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Asper said the commission had put its trust in Walker and it was “heartbroken” about all that has happened.

“In this case, we trusted (Walker) and so we gave (him) free rein with everything,” Asper said. “We saw lots of good things happen and we never sus

pected some of the things that were being alleged were taking place. We’re grieved about this.”

Suspension preceded firing

The commission suspended Walker on Dec. 28 after two closed-door meetings. At the time, the commission said it would await the outcome of the investigations before any permanent action would be taken. Tuesday, Commissioner Jimmy Taylor said he felt officials now had enough information to fire Walker and he moved that they do so. The Commission unanimously voted to remove Walker and then shortly after, Taylor left the meeting.

After the meeting, Commissioner Shelby Drummond said new information from the state and federal investigations led to Walker’s dismissal “with cause,” but he declined to elaborate.

“It was pretty tough,” said Drummond, who is serving his ninth year on the five-member board. “I had worked with the executive director for many years. It’s something that really hit me between the eyes.

“The commission did not know the things that were going on with the director. I was very surprised by this information that we received. It was disturbing to me.”

Walker was appointed by then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove to take over the department in 2002 as its third director. He was earning $124,000 annually. He most recently was reappointed by Gov. Phil Bryant and confirmed by the state Senate last year, before news of the troubles at the DMR broke.

The investigations

The Sun Herald has reported the Investigative Audit Division of the State Auditor’s Office and the FBI are investigating the DMR. The U.S. Interior Department recently audited the agency.

The Sun Herald has reported on preliminary reports from the federal audit, which raises questions about, among other issues, a lack of bids for some DMR work; appraisals the agency used for land purchases; the head of the DMR’s Coastal Impact Assistance Program using money she oversees to buy her parents’ property for the DMR; and the DMR’s use of federal money to buy property owned by Walker’s son.

The Sun Herald has also written about an organization Walker directs called the Mississippi Marine Resources Foundation, which owns two recreational fishing boats -- a 36-foot Topaz sport fisherman and a 42-foot Californian convertible.

Some have questioned spending hundreds of thousands of public dollars repairing and upgrading the boats. The fishing trips the DMR has taken lawmakers and other influential folks on also have been questioned.

CMR ponders changes

Commissioners complained at the meeting the DMR budget reports they receive account for only state money, not other money the agency receives, including grants and federal money.

At the meeting, commissioners also decided unanimously to consider changes to the DMR’s administrative operating procedures, which would require the executive director to give them more information about the day-to-day operations and finances. Commissioner Richard Gollott made the motion.

“It is apparent that the commission needs to require the executive director to be more forthcoming with information with regards to the executive director’s day-to-day operations of the DMR,” Gollott said. “Specifically, the commission needs to be informed about employee decisions, especially contract employees, land acquisition programs and budget information.”

Vacancy awaits

State law requires the commission to give the governor three qualified nominees to choose from as the next director. The appointment must be confirmed by the state Senate. The law specifies the DMR executive director “shall be knowledgeable and experienced in marine resources management.”

For now, the man Walker had hired late last year as his deputy director, Danny Guice, remains acting director. He intends to seek the top job on a permanent basis. Asked Tuesday whether the current cloud over the agency gave him second thoughts, Guice said he figures he was meant to be there.

“I think initially I was concerned about it, but at a point I decided it was just perhaps providence I’m here at this time and place,” Guice said. “They need someone who knows what needs fixing and what doesn’t need fixing.”

Public to be involved

But it doesn’t appear the commission is content to just give the job to Guice. Asper said after the meeting Tuesday that officials will begin discussing the search process. He intends to speak with the governor about the plans to move forward. There could be a national search or, less likely, an international one. There’s even the possibility of a search specifically focusing on people from Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.

“It’s going to be interesting to see what kind of individuals are going to be brave enough and confident and capable enough to step into an agency in this situation,” Asper said. “That’s why a national search may not be in our best interest. It may be better to look in the more local area for people who know the more long-term history of the agency, rather than just the short-term -- what’s been happening the last couple of months.”

Asper said the public will be involved and the search will be an open one.

“Once we have some applicants, we will solicit the public’s input on the qualifications of those and the appropriateness of those applicants,” he said. “We’ll get all the help we can.”

Anita Lee, Sun Herald staff writer, contributed to this report.