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Newspaper Claims State Auditor Defied Court Ruling to Release DMR Records

By Evelina Burnett | Published 04 Dec 2013 09:31pm | comments

State Auditor Stacy Pickering will be back in chancery court in Gulfport Friday, facing civil contempt charges pressed by a newspaper that he failed to release public documents despite a court order. MPB's Evelina Burnett reports.

The Sun Herald wants access to documents from the Department of Marine Resources that were used to bring fraud and other charges against seven former DMR employees, including the previous director. A judge has already ruled they are a matter of public record, but before copies could be made, the documents were handed over to a federal grand jury.

In court yesterday, Sun Herald attorney Henry Laird said that to “mysteriously have the records whisked away at night needs explanation.”

Laird declined to comment after yesterday's hearing. The Sun Herald has repeatedly declined to comment about the case, citing the pending litigation. 

Mississippi College law professor Matt Steffey says the case highlights the public’s right to have access to government records.

"Open records laws serve an extremely important public function in allowing the press and others to keep government accountable and understand how government is operating," he said. "So the Sun Herald is vindicating a very important interest in asserting it's right to have access to public records."

The state auditor's office says they tried to find a compromise between the state court order and the federal grand jury subpoena, but were ordered to hand over all of the documents before they could be copied for the newspaper because, they said, the U.S. attorney's office was worried releasing the files would violate the joint investigative agreement or cause discovery issues.

Pickering testified at the end of the day he would file a request in federal court for the department of justice to release the documents.

"Mr. Pickering has testified today that he would move the federal court to release those documents and allow them to be produced pursuant to the state court order," says Pickering's attorney, John Corlew." "It's our intention to move forward in that direction."

The hearing will continue Friday morning. It's still unclear what is in the 38 boxes of documents at the center of this dispute, though issues at the DMR have led to more than 30 state and federal charges being filed against former employees. 

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