DMR could soon take possession of controversial boats

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - Two large boats that have been leased by the Department of Marine Resources for the past several years could soon belong to the agency. That's because a deal has been worked out between the DMR, the state auditors office, and the controversial foundation that actually owns the boats.

The Marine Resources Foundation has leased the two boats to the DMR at a cost of more than $1 million.

"The insurance expires in June of this year and that would invalidate the lease from the contract," Mississippi State Auditor Stacey Pickering said.

The foundation, headed up by Dr. Bill Walker, will now give the boats to the DMR, according to the auditor.

"They're working over the next seven to 10 days, as a foundation board, to legally transfer the ownership of these two boats to the Department of Marine Resources for the use of the taxpayers of Mississippi."

Walker was also the director of the DMR until he was fired in January in the wake of federal and state auditor investigations into spending practices at the agency. So what happens next?

"The agency has no intent to extend or renew any leases with these boats and does not intend to have any relationship with the foundation," said new DMR Director Jamie Miller.

The boats were used on fishing trips for state lawmakers, other elected officials and influential private citizens. Taxpayers in attendance, like Billy Bova, had questions of their own.

"Can you cause these individuals to re-pay any money the Department of Marine Resources and state of Mississippi taxpayers expended on these trips?" Bova asked.

Pickering had an answer.

"Individuals who have enriched themselves at the taxpayer's expense have, under my first term and now my second term, have been held accountable and we'll continue to do so," Pickering said.

Tuesday's announcement is the first time that Auditor Pickering has really spoken publicly about the investigation. Even though the boats are now being transferred, he said the investigation is far from over.

"As far as any issues of indictments down the road, that will be addressed at the appropriate time."

Officials in the auditor's office say it's a possibility the DMR could sell the two boats once the agency takes possession of them. The money could then be used to buy several badly needed law enforcement patrol boats to upgrade an aging fleet.

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