- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 28, 2014

GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) - A judge has found Auditor Stacey Pickering and public officials in contempt of court for withholding public records sought by a Gulf Coast newspaper in an investigation of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources.

Harrison County Chancellor Jennifer Schloegel has ordered State Auditor Stacey Pickering, his office and the state Department of Marine Resources to pay the more than $36,000 in attorney fees The Sun Herald (https://bit.ly/SeLgxw ) in its 19-month legal battle to see the documents.

Schloegel fined Pickering, Attorney General Jim Hood and auditor investigator David Huggins, audit special agent Chris Lott and assistant attorneys general Melissa Patterson, Joseph Runnels, Sandra Chesnutt and Harold Pizzetta $100 each for their roles in the “willful and wrongful denial” of the public-records request by the paper.

“There is evidence Attorney General Hood counseled the defendant auditor to disregard the ruling and order of the chancery court,” Schloegel wrote.

Pickering would not comment on the ruling or on the question of whether he would appeal.

Hood’s office said he would appeal.

“We respectfully disagree with the judge on both the facts and the law,” spokeswoman Jan Schaefer said.

Bill Walker, the former head of the marine resources agency, pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge in the case. Two other MDMR officials - Tina Shumate and Joe Ziegler - are awaiting trial in federal court.

Walker’s son Scott also pleaded guilty in the DMR case and in a case involving former D’Iberville City Manager Michael Janus, who also pleaded guilty, and they await sentencing.

Pickering’s office seized the records Jan. 15, 2013, and moved them into another room of the Bolton Building in Biloxi, which the auditor’s office shares with the MDMR and other state agencies.

Schloegel said the MDMR should have kept a copy of the records “it was charged to keep as a public body” and should have added the auditor as a party to the initial records dispute with the paper. She said the agency had done that it would have shown “a good faith and genuine effort to comply with the plaintiff’s public records request.”

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Information from: The Sun Herald, https://www.sunherald.com


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