Coast newspaper wins in bid to get information from MDMR, Pickering

BILOXI — A Harrison County judge has ordered the state auditor and the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources to turn over records to a Gulf Coast newspaper.

The Sun Herald reports that Chancery Judge Jennifer Schloegel issued the ruling Thursday.

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 involving the MDMR. The MDMR said it was unable to give the newspaper the records because the auditor’s office had them.

Schloegel ruled relocating records to a law enforcement agency does not mean they become investigative reports exempt from public disclosure.

“I would find that they are public records and that they do not meet the exemption of an investigative report … and therefore, they should be released to the public,” the judge said.

Schloegel said records can be denied to the public under the criminal investigations exemption when they reveal a law enforcement agency’s confidential informants, investigative techniques and procedures, or undercover operations. Investigative reports that law enforcement agencies compile about records they seize also can be exempt from public disclosure, she said.

“We do not have any reports prepared by the auditor’s office,” Schloegel said. “We have the Department of Marine Resources records that have been used in the regular course of business. They certainly were not compiled by DMR for a law enforcement purpose.”

The Sun Herald filed requests with the MDMR on Nov. 14, 2012, and Dec. 27, 2012, for financial records associated with the agency’s Emergency Disaster Relief and Artificial Reef programs.

After the Sun Herald filed its records lawsuit, the MDMR gave the newspaper 22,000 pages of records the agency had on computer, but said the auditor’s office took the only copies of other records.

Schloegel ruled the MDMR did not violate the state Public Records Act because the agency was unable to comply with the Sun Herald’s request.

After Schloegel’s ruling, Pickering said: “The court has spoken and we will move forward. We are committed to protecting the taxpayers of Mississippi and we will continue to do that as the investigation at the Department of Marine Resources is brought to a conclusion.”

Schloegel told the auditor’s office to return the records to the MDMR. She said both agencies and the newspaper should work out details for the records to be inspected.

 

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