JACKSON — State Auditor Stacey Pickering asked a federal court yesterday to authorize the release of Mississippi Department of Marine Resources records that are being sought by a Gulf Coast newspaper.
Pickering’s motion, filed in U.S. District Court in Gulfport, is in response to an order by Harrison County Chancery Judge Jennifer Schloegel.
Gulf Publishing and the Sun Herald newspaper have been fighting Pickering for the records. On Wednesday, Schloegel ordered the documents produced by Monday, the Sun Herald reported. She had issued a similar order in October.
Pickering had argued that a federal subpoena prevented his releasing documents seized from MDMR during a corruption investigation. Schloegel disagreed, saying the records were created by the agency, not as investigative reports.
Pickering’s motion yesterday also said he would like guidance from the federal court because the records had been used for a federal grand jury.
The Sun Herald 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 today.
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.
In a related item, Zeigler, former chief of staff at the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, wants to be tried separately from other defendants in a federal corruption case related to the use of public money.
Zeigler made the request in a motion filed in U.S. District Court in Gulfport. Shumate had already made a similar request.