Friday, November 8, 2013
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The former director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, his son and two others have been indicted on federal corruption charges involving hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money.
That federal indictment — and another involving a former city manager in south Mississippi — were unsealed Thursday, not long after five former MDMR employees were indicted on state charges as part of a months-long investigation into possible misspending of public money.
One federal indictment unsealed Thursday charged former MDMR director Bill Walker, 68, of Ocean Springs; his son, Scott Walker, 34, of Ocean Springs; former MDMR chief of staff Joseph Zeigler Jr., 66, of Gulfport; and Sheila "Tina" Shumate, 52, of Saucier, the former director of the agency's coastal impact assistance program.
That indictment said the Walkers and Shumate conspired to use MDMR's money to buy land in which the Walkers had a financial interest and also embezzled $210,000. It charged the Walkers and Zeigler with diverting MDMR money into the private bank account of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources Foundation, a private foundation created by Bill Walker in 2004 that purported to support the agency.
"The indictments and demands announced today are one step toward restoring the trust of taxpayers, but they do not close the investigation," Pickering said in a news release that he and federal investigators issued together. "As alleged in the indictments, these men and women abused their positions, stole from the taxpayers of Mississippi, and they will be held accountable for their actions."
MDMR was created in 1994 to oversee programs related to Mississippi's interests in and along the Gulf of Mexico, including seafood safety, coastal wetlands and tidelands protection and boating. It is among the smaller agencies in Mississippi government. Its current budget is just about $10.8 million.
The indictments were the culmination of a lengthy investigation that had already resulted in a shakeup in the leadership of the agency.
Bill Walker was fired from MDMR in January, after leading the agency since 2002, Reached by phone at his home on Thursday, he told The Associated Press he had no comment. He has denied wrongdoing in the past. His attorney, William Kirksey, was not immediately available.
Scott Walker's lawyer, Arthur Madden, said he hadn't had a chance to review the indictments and had no comment.
Another federal indictment unsealed Thursday charged Scott Walker and Michael Janus with the fraudulent use of about $180,000 in city money. Janus is a former state lawmaker and former city manager for D'Iberville.
A call to a home listing for Janus rang unanswered on Thursday. Zeigler's phone number and the name of his attorney were not immediately available.
Those facing state charges are: Shumate; Kerwin Cuevas, 47, former director of the artificial reefs program; Grant Larsen, 39, former marine administrator; Leslie Gollott, 41, Shumate's former assistant; and Susan Perkins, 39, a former marine officer. The five were arrested Thursday on the state charges and booked into the Harrison County Jail, according to the jail website.
Records show Shumate is charged in state court with five counts of embezzlement and one count of witness tampering. The witness tampering charge in the indictment said she tried to get Gollott to withhold information during the investigation.
"She never embezzled a nickel from DMR and we look forward to the opportunity prove that," Shumate's attorney, Tim Holleman, told AP.
Cuevas, Gollott and Perkins were each charged with two counts of embezzlement. Larsen is charged with one count of embezzlement.
Most of the charges in the state indictments are related to what authorities said were reimbursements for fraudulent travel vouchers.
Cuevas' lawyer, Donald Rafferty, did not immediately respond to a message at his office. It was not immediately clear if the others had lawyers.
Perkins did not respond to a message at her home. Telephone numbers were not immediately available for Larsen and Gollott.
Pickering said the auditor's office is demanding that 10 people, including Bill Walker, repay money that he says was misspent at MDMR. Pickering said that includes the five people indicted on state charges, and five others.
The Sun Herald newspaper filed a lawsuit nearly a year ago seeking records from MDMR's Artificial Reef and Emergency Disaster Relief programs. The state auditor's office then subpoenaed the same records. A Harrison County chancery judge ruled Oct. 31 that the newspaper has a right to review the records. Before the review could take place, the state auditor said a federal grand jury had subpoenaed the records, and the documents were taken away.