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Judge orders DMR records to be released to newspaper

GULFPORT — A federal judge has ordered prosecutors to release 60 boxes of Mississippi Department of Marine Resources records to Biloxi’s Sun Herald newspaper.

U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett, in a Friday order, overruled the U.S. Attorney’s claims that keeping the records secret preserves grand jury secrecy.

Starrett gave the government 10 days to provide the documents to the Sun Herald.

If Starrett hadn’t sided with the newspaper, state Auditor Stacey Pickering could have faced a contempt ruling. Harrison County Chancery Court Judge Jennifer Schloegel had ordered the records released. Pickering asked Starrett to release the records Dec. 5.

“I’m very happy with the decision and Judge Starrett’s basis for the decision,” the Sun Herald reports its attorney, Henry Laird, as saying. “It now returns the case where it should be, which is the Chancery Court in Harrison County. It’s a great decision in favor of freedom of expression and freedom of speech because the people of Mississippi are going to be able to look at their records.”

The Sun Herald, the MDMR and State Auditor Stacey Pickering have fought since January over whether the documents were exempt from the state Public Records Act after the auditor’s office seized them for an ongoing criminal investigation.

Starrett found that releasing the records won’t imperil grand jury secrecy, in part because it appears they were never presented to grand jurors before federal indictments were issued Nov. 5.

“The government’s position appears to be that the DMR records are part of a grand jury proceeding because they were obtained by a grand jury subpoena, without regard for their actual role, if any, in the grand jury proceeding,” Starrett wrote.

The documents were subpoenaed on Nov. 5, only hours before federal indictments were issued against former DMR Director William Walker, his son Scott Walker, and former MDMR executives Tina Shumate and Joseph Ziegler, Jr. Scott Walker and Michael Janus, the former city manager for D’Iberville, are charged in a separate case with fraudulently using $180,000 in that city’s money.

The records were taken to Jackson despite Schloegel’s attempts to block their removal from the DMR building in Biloxi. Starrett wrote that it would be wrong to block Pickering from complying with the ruling that the records should be open.

“The chancery court’s order will remain unenforced, and the public records at issue will remain hidden from public scrutiny — nullifying the lawful authority of the chancery court and the Mississippi Legislature which passed the Public Records Act,” the judge wrote. “By any measurement, this result would be unjust.”

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