Newspaper wins records battle with DMR in Hancock courtroom
By Dwayne Bremer
Nov 1, 2013, 21:50
In what is being hailed as a victory for newspapers and the public alike, a chancery court judge ruled Thursday that DMR records currently in possession of the Mississippi State Auditor's office are public documents and should be turned over to a Gulf Coast newspaper.
On Thursday, Chancery Court Judge Jennifer Schloegel ruled in favor of the Sun Herald after a two-day hearing at the Hancock County Courthouse on Main Street in Bay St. Louis.
The newspaper had filed suit after the state auditor's refused to turn over records and documents it had seized from DMR in January.
"We are pleased with the court's decision to return the public's records to the people of Mississippi," Sun Herald Executive Editor Stan Tiner said Thursday. "It is regrettable that it was necessary to engage in such a lengthy fight to obtain public records that were generated in the normal conduct of business with DMR."
The Sun Herald has been conducting an independent investigation on DMR and its former Director Bill Walker for more than a year.
Last December, the newspaper filed a public records request with DMR asking for an assortment of documents.
In January, the state auditor's office seized the records as part of its criminal investigation into the agency and Walker.
The state auditor's office then refused to turn over the records, claiming they were part of a criminal investigation.
Schloegel ruled that since the records were compiled by DMR and they were not compiled for law enforcement purposes, then they are public records.
After the ruling, the state auditor issued a statement saying he does not plan to appeal Schloegel's ruling.
DMR Executive Director Jamie Miller said Friday that his office will provide the records to the Sun Herald as soon as possible.
"The MDMR was confronted with the dilemma of complying with the Public Records Act and not violating a grand jury subpoena," Miller said. Judge Clark and Judge Schloegel both determined that the MDMR responded correctly and did not violate either obligation. We have maintained all along we are willing to provide access to any public records in our possession with no exceptions. As soon as the documents subpoenaed by the state auditor's office are returned to this agency, we will make arrangements for the Sun Herald to have full access. We anticipate there will be a nominal cost, including staff time and use of office copiers and scanners. We will negotiate a fair arrangement as Judge Schloegel ordered."
Sea Coast Echo publisher Randy Ponder stated, "All local and state agencies should take notice of this ruling. Public business must always be conducted in an open manner that is readily available to the general public. Every single penny of tax payer money should be accounted for without having to file a lawsuit. This is the only way to regain the public's trust."