Politics & Government

Were DMR records public? State Supreme Court will decide

Chancery Court Judge Jennifer Schloegel listens as State Auditor Stacey Pickering answers questions from Sun Herald attorney Henry Laird during a Gulfport hearing about Department of Marine Resources records.
Chancery Court Judge Jennifer Schloegel listens as State Auditor Stacey Pickering answers questions from Sun Herald attorney Henry Laird during a Gulfport hearing about Department of Marine Resources records. TTIsbell@sunherald.com File

The Mississippi Supreme Court has agreed to hear the Sun Herald’s appeal of a decision that found business records belonging to the state Department of Marine Resources were exempt from public disclosure because they were part of an investigation being conducted by the State Auditor’s Office.

The state Court of Appeals sided with the two state agencies in March, finding the records protected under the criminal investigations exemption in the law.

The Supreme Court could have let that ruling stand, but has chosen instead to consider the appeal, with seven of nine justices voting to hear it and two not participating.

Chancery Court Judge Jennifer Schloegel said Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013, the state Auditor still must comply with her order to make the Department of Marine Resources records public and make them available to the Sun Herald.

“The Sun Herald is very happy that the Mississippi Supreme Court recognizes the issue of whether these records should be open to the public is an important question worthy of review by the highest court of our state,” said the multi-media company’s attorney, Henry Laird of Gulfport.

Chancery Court Judge Jennifer Schloegel ruled in October 2013 that the records were public because DMR had created them during the ordinary course of business, not as part of an investigation. The auditor’s office subpoenaed them after the Sun Herald filed a public records request for the information. The subpoena used wording that matched the Sun Herald’s written request.

Instead of following Schloegel’s orders, the auditor’s office delivered the records under subpoena to a federal grand jury in Jackson that was investigating DMR. The grand jury did not review the records before indicting DMR chief Bill Walker and others on charges related to financial malfeasance.

Schloegel found that State Auditor Stacy Pickering and the two 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 for violations of the records law against Pickering and his investigators, and Attorney General Jim Hood and assistant attorneys general representing the DMR.

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