Judge mulling newspaper’s public records lawsuit involving MDMR

BILOXI — A Harrison County judge is reviewing legal arguments and will rule later on a Gulf Coast newspaper’s lawsuit to get access to more records from an audit of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources.

The Sun Herald reports the MDMR and the state auditor’s office went before Chancery Judge Jennifer Schloegel for a hearing Wednesday.

The Sun Herald filed requests with the MDMR in November and January for agency financial records. Using language similar to the wording in the newspaper’s written request, the State Auditor’s Office then subpoenaed the records and took them.

The auditor’s office argues the documents are now investigative reports exempt from the state Public Records Act.

“The character of the documents did not change,” Melissa Patterson, an assistant attorney general assigned to the auditor’s office, told Schloegel. “It’s where they’re located that makes them exempt. While they are with a law enforcement agency, or compiled by a law enforcement agency, they meet the definition of an investigative report.”

The MDMR says it has produced 22,000 pages of documents on computer disc for the Sun Herald, but can’t provide other records because the auditor’s office has the paper originals and there are no copies.

“We can’t produce what we don’t have and we didn’t violate the Public Records Act,” Joe Runnels, an assistant attorney general assigned to the MDMR, said during the hearing.

The newspaper’s attorney, Henry Laird, said the auditor’s office should have copied the records it needed and left the originals with the MDMR. He said the MDMR generated the records in the course of doing business, not as part of an investigation.

“We say it’s past time for the people’s records to be seen by them,” Laird said. “These are the people’s records and the State Auditor’s Office has a duty to preserve them for the people of the state. The fact that they can be used in a criminal proceeding does not deprive the public of the right to inspect these records.”

The newspaper wanted to examine financial records for the MDMR’s Artificial Reef and post-Katrina Emergency Disaster Relief programs. The newspaper examined and reported on the portion of those records that were on computer disc, but not on the paper records.

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