Current director of Miss. Dept. of Marine Resources questions land purchase under ex-director



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PASCAGOULA, Mississippi — The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources should not have bought a residential lot in 2010 from the parents of a woman who was then a manager in the agency, says agency's the current leader.

DMR executive director Jamie Miller told The Sun Herald (http://bit.ly/Z3HhaF ) there are still questions about the propriety of the land purchase.

"Obviously, there are still questions over the potential conflict and the way it was purchased," Miller said last week.

The lot in Pascagoula is now covered with weeds and bushes, and a pier has almost collapsed over Sioux Bayou, which curls around the lot's southern edge. The land is at the dead end of a street overlooking Krebs Lake and the Pascagoula River. Miller said the lot is too small and isolated to serve its intended purpose: conservation, creation of green space and low-impact public use.

Miller, who has led DMR since April 2013, said the agency can do nothing with the lot until a federal review is finished.

The lot was purchased from the parents of Tina Shumate with a $245,000 grant from the Coastal Impact Assistance Program, which Shumate headed. Her attorney says Shumate avoided the transaction.

Shumate is among the former DMR employees who left the agency after an investigation into spending practices. She pleaded guilty Aug. 15 in Harrison County Circuit Court to signing false travel documents and receiving reimbursement for expenses she didn't incur.

A federal audit found the Coastal Impact Assistance Program full of conflicts, including the lot purchase. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing recommendations for changes. Penny Bartnicki, chief of Fish and Wildlife's Coastal Impact Assistance Program branch, said the review process is taking longer than expected and should be finished within the next year.

Then-Gov. Haley Barbour selected DMR to manage Coastal Impact Assistance Program money received by Mississippi and other coastal states. The money comes from offshore oil leases. The federal audit from 2009 to 2012 questioned $30 million in spending, 77 percent of all funding sampled. Mississippi, plus its three coast counties, received $99.8 million.

The audit found conflicts of interest started with secrecy at DMR. The agency listed its land acquisitions as one $10.8 million project. The public never had a chance to see or comment on properties it intended to buy, the audit said.

"This created an environment that allowed questionable land purchases to occur," the audit said, "including the purchases of the home of (Shumate's) parents, and a yacht club and boat storage facility."

DMR drafted a 12-page plan, complete with maps, for the lot owned by Shumate's parents. The agency justified buying the flood-prone lot to remove the house and any potential for future development. "This project," the plan said, "will provide improved water quality and wildlife habitat benefits."

The plan said, "The site also has potential to allow public access to Krebs Lake and the Pascagoula River for canoes, kayaks and small motorized vessels."

The narrow street the lot sits on has no sidewalks or off-street parking.

"I would not have pursued the purchase of this property," Miller said. "We would want to have larger, contiguous tracts."

A neighbor thought DMR intended to buy more lots on the street for a conservation area. Curtiss Coleman, who lives across from the property, said he called the agency a few years ago and asked about its plans. He said he was told DMR was looking into buying the whole street, but the agency needed more money.

The lot is now a wildlife habitat of sorts.

"I have seen a coyote, rabbits and some nutria," Coleman said. "There hasn't been any public use out there."

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