Meridian Star

December 19, 2013

US attorney says MDMR records shouldn't be public

HOLBROOK MOHR, Associated Press
Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. — The U.S. Attorney's office has asked a federal judge to deny State Auditor Stacey Pickering's request to authorize the release of Mississippi Department of Marine Resources records that are being sought by a Gulf Coast newspaper.

Gulf Publishing and the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., have been fighting Pickering for the records, and Harrison County Chancery Judge Jennifer Schloegel recently sided with the newspaper. But the documents are now in the possession of a federal grand jury, which has been investigating alleged corruption at MDMR.

Pickering asked the federal court on Dec. 5 for the records to be released in response to Schloegel's rulings that the documents are public records.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerry Rushing in Jackson argued in a court filing Wednesday that the records should not be released to the newspaper for publication at this time.

MDMR's former director, his son, and two former agency employees were indicted Nov. 5 on federal corruption charges related to the use of the agency's money, but Rushing said the investigation continues.

"Releasing these records at this time, and for the purposes set forth in the petition, would defeat the purpose of the secrecy of the grand jury," Rushing wrote.

In response to Rushing's argument, an attorney for Pickering said in a court filing Wednesday that the auditor wants to be "placed in a position to comply with the orders of the Harrison County Chancery Court."

Schloegel first ruled that the documents were public records in October. The U.S. Attorney's office for south Mississippi subpoenaed the records Nov. 4, around the same time Schloegel ordered they be delivered to the chancery court, according to court records.

Pickering said in court documents that he couldn't comply with both orders and gave the records to the federal grand jury.

The Sun Herald continued to challenge Pickering for the records, and Schloegel said again in early December that they should be handed over. That's when Pickering asked the federal court to authorize their release.

The documents are contained in about 60 boxes, according to Rushing's court filing.