Disturbed beach in Pass Christian that was sacrificed to a questionable CIAP project. Mississippi Marine Resources Department (MDMR) executive director Dr. Bill Walker was suspended without pay on Friday December 28th 2012 by his agency’s Commissioners. Reinstatement will depend on the results of investigations by state and federal auditors and the FBI. Walker’s state agency used coastal restoration money from the Federal Coastal Impact Assistance Program (CIAP) in questionable ways as revealed by a series of Sun Herald newspaper stories based on the facts of the audits.
This is exactly the type of misspending we’ll need to guard against in the coming years as billions of dollars from the BP disaster come to the Gulf for restoration.
Under the MDMR’s administration of CIAP funds, land was purchased from family members of MDMR employees. The investigators questioned sales price and appraisal quality in many recent land purchases made with CIAP money. Also of interest is that the Marine Resources agency has a parallel non-profit foundation that supports its activities including chartering boats to take legislators and VIPs on fishing trips. GRN has long been critical of the purposes of some CIAP projects that seem to destroy habitat rather than restore it, such as the City of Pass Christian dredging public beaches to expand its harbor. Destroying beach to dredge new harbor slips isn’t restoration.
The Gulf Islands Conservancy is calling for a broad search to replace Dr. Walker with someone with experience in marine resource management who can rehabilitate the agency’s image, and do a better, more trustworthy job spending coastal restoration money. With the historic opportunity for restoration that is coming with BP’s and others’ fines from the oil disaster, the people and environment of the Gulf need effective use of the unprecedented sums of money.
Clearly, the agency’s reputation is tarnished as a result of Walker’s recent management and the problem needs to be corrected by the Commission on Marine Resources and the Governor. Replacing Dr. Walker with someone from within the MDMR’s ranks, such as Deputy Director Guice, will not solve the problem or build confidence that the agency will be more accountable or transparent when spending coastal restoration money in the future.
Andrew Whitehurst is GRN's Assistant Director of Science and Water Policy.