Last week the U.S. attorney’s office tried to bail State Auditor Stacey Pickering out of his public records request mess by trying to pull rank on state court Judge Jennifer Schloegel of Gulfport. Here is the A.P.’s report.
It took U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett little time to reject what smelled like a back room deal to try to help Pickering save face. The Sun-Herald reported on Saturday:
A federal judge on Friday ordered the release of documents sought by the Sun Herald for more than a year in its investigation of the Department of Marine Resources.
District Judge Keith Starrett gave the U.S. Attorney’s Office 10 days to turn over the records…
“The United States represents that these documents are part of an ongoing grand jury investigation,” Starrett wrote in his order. “But the record contains no indication that they were presented to the grand jury before the indictments were issued Nov. 5, 2013.
“Furthermore, the United States conspicuously failed to represent that the documents would be presented to the grand jury at some point in the future. The government’s position appears to be that the DMR records are part of a grand jury proceeding because they were obtained by a grand jury subpoena, without regard for their actual role, if any, in the grand jury proceeding.”
He also said the government admitted in its brief that the rule against disclosing “a matter occurring before the grand jury” does not apply to “material obtained or created independently of the grand jury as long as the disclosure of such material does not reveal what transpired before or at the direction of the grand jury.”
He found the records could not reveal what transpired before the grand jury because there was no evidence they had been presented to the grand jury. The records, he wrote, “are public records created by the DMR and obtained by the state auditor independent of the grand jury proceedings.”
Starrett found that if he didn’t permit Pickering to disclose the DMR records, he could be held in contempt of court by Schloegel. And, he said, keeping the records secret would essentially nullify the authority of the Chancery Court and the Legislature, which passed the Public Records Act.
Good for Judge Starrett. This was the right thing to do. The Mississippi Legislature has decided what are public records. Pickering and the U.S. attorney should not get to maneuver around that, regardless of their motive.
Speaking of motive, many people on the Coast assume that Pickering was trying to hide something because the defendants in the DMR investigation are big Republican supporters. That suspicion makes it even more important for these records to be released.
I’m not going to go so far as to say that this was a political disaster for Pickering. But the Coast is a region with a lot of Republican voters. This debacle will hurt him if he ever has to run in a contested Republican primary for U.S. Senate or another statewide office.