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Newspaper's bid to get DMR records continues

BILOXI — The Sun Herald is arguing in court documents that the state’s attorneys have failed to follow the law for sealing a court record.

Henry Laird, who represents the newspaper in a long running dispute over access to Mississippi Department of Marine Resources documents, argues the law requires notice to the public and a hearing to decide whether secrecy is needed in the interest of justice.

Laird said State Auditor Stacey Pickering, who wants the proceedings held behind closed doors, is violating a Harrison County judge’s order that the MDMR records are public.

The Sun Herald reports that Pickering wants Chancery Judge Jennifer Schloegel to amend her decision on MDMR’s records or stop proceedings until Attorney General Jim Hood can appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Pickering argues secrecy is necessary because the case involves sensitive information from an investigation of wrongdoing at the DMR under former executive director Bill Walker.

The auditor’s office and federal authorities last week arrested Walker, six other former DMR employees, Walker’s son Scott Walker and former D’Iberville city manager Michael Janus on numerous criminal charges.

Pickering also submitted a sealed legal memorandum for Schloegel to consider. A sealed court document would be unavailable to the public. Laird said if the auditor’s memorandum is filed under seal, he will be unable to discuss its contents with his client, the Sun Herald.

The Sun Herald filed public records requests for MDMR Artificial Reef and Emergency Disaster Relief records before Pickering’s office seized them for the investigation.

On Oct. 31, Schloegel found MDMR created the records in the regular course of business. She ruled the records do not fall under a state Public Records Act exemption for investigative reports, as the auditor claims.

On Nov. 5, the judge and newspaper learned that, at some point, the auditor had taken the records to Jackson for the grand jury without making copies at the MDMR’s Biloxi offices as she had ordered.

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