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Judge rules DMR records must be released to newspaper

BILOXI — A Harrison County judge has ordered State Auditor Stacey Pickering and the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources to release documents sought by a Gulf Coast newspaper.

Chancery Judge Jennifer Schloegel yesterday ordered the documents produced by Monday. She had issued a similar order in October.

Pickering has argued a federal subpoena has prevented his releasing documents seized from MDMR during a corruption investigation. However, Schloegel had found the DMR records were created by the agency, not as investigative reports.

The Sun Herald had sued Pickering for access to records that his office had seized from the MDMR as part of an ongoing state and federal investigation of the agency.

The newspaper had asked Schloegel to hold Pickering and his office in civil contempt of court for failing to turn over records it has sought. The judge has not ruled on that motion.

Schloegel will hear more arguments on the issue tomorrow.

Pickering had argued the records are exempt from disclosure under an exception to the state Public Records Act. He has said the case involves sensitive information about alleged wrongdoing at the MDMR under its former executive director, Bill Walker.

After Schloegel ruled last month that the documents are public records, she learned that a federal grand jury in Jackson had issued a subpoena for them. She issued a protective order directing the auditor’s office to provide the records to her court so they could be copied, but the Sun Herald reports the records were sent to the grand jury instead.

U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett has set a June 2 trial date for Walker and his son, Scott Walker, and two former MDMR officials, Joseph Zeigler Jr. and Sheila “Tina” Shumate, on federal corruption charges.

Scott Walker and Michael Janus, the former city manager for D’Iberville, are charged in a separate case with fraudulently using $180,000 of that city’s money. Starrett set a March 10 trial date in that case.

Each has pleaded not guilty. The trials will be held in Gulfport.

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