BILOXI — A preliminary audit by federal authorities says the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources may have skirted laws requiring competitive bidding in awarding more than $600,000 in contracts and an additional $116,000 to a consultant.
The Sun Herald reports the U.S. Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General’s preliminary audit questions DMR’s dealings with Barber & Mann Inc. of Ridgeland. The company was founded in 2002 by Madison County tax assessor Gerald Barber and his wife, Elizabeth Rooks-Barber.
The July audit was turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with recommendations for fixing the problems. Neither agency will comment on the status of the audits.
Since the federal audits, the state Auditor’s Office also begun an own investigation, seizing DMR records in October.
The federal audit said DMR gave inadequate justification for not seeking competitive bids that would assure the government gets the best deals for goods and services.
The Inspector General’s Office said Barber & Mann wasn’t the only firm able to do the work, which was the justification DMR gave for not seeking bids.
Barber & Mann was hired to administer the federal Coastal Impact Assistance Plan, CIAP grants and manage CIAP land acquisitions.
According to the audit, DMR said it went with Barber & Mann because its vice president, Elizabeth Rooks-Barber, was the only person with the “relevant experience” needed to manage the CIAP program for DMR.
The Barber & Mann company profile says Rooks-Barber is a certified wildlife biologist who once was executive director of the Mississippi Wildlife Federation and was executive director of the American Lung Association of Mississippi. She specializes in conservation planning, grant writing, grant management and wildlife consulting.
But, the audit report said, Rooks-Barber was not the only person qualified to administer the CIAP program, which distributes federal money from offshore energy leases to six states affected by offshore drilling. According to the report, she told the auditors, “I’m not the only person who could have done this. not at all.”
Rooks-Barber said she started work in 2003 on the previous CIAP program, administered then by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state Department of Environmental Quality. When the program began under DMR, she said, “They wanted to use a lot of the elements and some of the framework that DEQ had set up in their program.”
“The one person who worked on it consistently was me,” she said, adding DMR sought her assistance to expand the smaller program run by DEQ. “I’m proud of my work at DMR.”
Rooks-Barber told the Sun Heraldshe was aware of the audit but would not talk about it other than to say she had no control over the way she was hired.
“Those are probably questions you should direct to DMR or just the Fish and Wildlife Service,” she said of the contracts covered by the audit.
The audit examined five no-bid contracts between DMR and Barber & Mann that paid the firm a total of $605,791 from 2006 through 2012. Two of the contracts were amended, which the auditors suggested was an attempt to keep each under $50,000. By doing so, DMR avoided state rules requiring agencies to solicit competitive written proposals for personal-services contracts of between $50,001 and $100,000.