HANCOCK COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - Dr. Vernon Asper has resigned from the Commission on Marine Resources. The chairman and longtime member of the CMR stepped down at the recommendation of his employer, the University of Southern Mississippi.
The resignation also comes amid an ongoing investigation of the Department of Marine Resources.
"There are a lot of good memories," Dr. Asper told WLOX News, "But the events of this past year have resulted in a situation where it's really not a lot of fun anymore."
Dr. Asper has served on the CMR since its creation 19 years ago, many of those years as chairman.
Those events he refers to are the ongoing audit and FBI investigation in the Department of Marine Resources, a probe that led the commission to fire longtime the DMR director, Dr. Bill Walker, someone Dr. Asper says he trusted and respected.
"In fact, I still question just how culpable he is in all this. Because he is an outstanding individual. I've known him for more than 25 years. And until these incidents and allegations, I'd never seen anything questionable about him," said Dr. Asper.
He says the Commission on Marine Resources had limited power when it came to the day to day management of the DMR.
"We were not involved in the management of the agency at the nitty gritty level. So, when all of this came out, we were as surprised as anyone else," he explained, "Simply because that hasn't been our charge. It's not what we're required to do by state statute.
WLOX News interviewed Dr. Asper insider a small hangar at Stennis Airport, where he keeps his beloved small plane, which he built from plans over a 24 year period.
He talked about the recent Inspector General's audit report of the DMR and its questioning of allocating CIAP funds.
"The only one I was questioning was the boat storage unit in the Ocean Springs harbor. When we found out, after the fact, that the purchase had been made with CIAP funds, we questioned it. And we asked exactly what's going on? And we received a very satisfactory answer that this was going to be used for green space and it's really critical due to where it is and it's very difficult to get land in that area and on and on," he said.
"So we questioned it. We got a very satisfactory answer. And it wasn't until later that we learned of some of the other connections to it," said the now former CMR chairman.
Though USM officials have discussed the possibility of him resigning from the CMR for several months, the tipping point may have been that Inspector General's report, which outlines concerns about conflicts of interest and inappropriate handling of CIAP money by the DMR leadership.
"It's going to be really interesting to find out with these indictments that are due out soon, exactly what the state is going to charge him [Walker] or others with," said Dr. Asper.
When asked if he might be among those indicted, Dr. Asper admits it is a concern.
"I'm concerned about it. I haven't done anything wrong, so I don't know why I would be charged. So, I guess we'll see."
Dr. Asper says USM official have been discussing the possibility of him resigning from the CMR for the past several months.
"So, they have been recommending this ever since then. What I learned from them recently was that now is the time to do it. They really felt strongly that again, it was in my best interest and in the best interest of the university, it was time to do it."
One thing he's certain about is that the events of this past year will undoubtedly taint his legacy of nearly 20 years on the CMR.
"My legacy is going to be that I resigned during this situation. So, that's how I'm going to be remembered. It's unavoidable," he explained, "That's the way it is in any public service. When you dedicate 19 years to an event, but one situation like this develops, which I admit is really big, it's going to taint everything. Has to," he reasoned.
The events of this past year have also taken a personal toll on the longtime CMR chairman. Stress has been a frequent concern.
"It's been really stressful. This last year has been very stressful. Just went to the dentist yesterday and he told me I need some new crowns because I've been grinding my teeth while I sleep. So, hopefully that stress level will be relieved," said Dr. Asper.
The governor will appoint someone to fill the new vacancy on the CMR.