After a year-long investigation into the operation of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, state and federal indictments were handed down Thursday, along with demands for payment totaling close to $1 million by the State Auditor's office.
At the center of the drama are former DMR Executive Director Dr. Bill Walker and his son, Scott.
The elder Walker was a well-respected state agency head whose life's work was spent building the agency's influence and bank account, expanding its role on the coast, and making a name for himself in political circles from the coast to the Capitol. His office saw millions pass through it over the years, not the least of which in the form of federal CIAP grants.
Every municipality on the coast cozied up to Bill Walker at some point or another to try and tap his resources and put them to use in their community. And business and industry along the bayous and waterways had his cell on speed dial.
During the latter part of Dr. Walker's tenure it became evident his management and oversight of the agency wasn't as strictly controlled as some had believed. Projects slipped through before being properly vetted. Invoices and reimbursements were allegedly approved with little oversight, some of which have now led to at least six employee indictments as a result of the loosely run operation.
His son, Scott, parlayed his father's work and connections into a number of political and business opportunities.
Scott once worked for former U.S. Senators Trent Lott and Roger Wicker before unsuccessfully challenging Connie Moran for mayor of Ocean Springs. His was a campaign of missteps and over the top billboards, ultimately turning voters off and handing Moran an easier win than most initially thought.
Scott invested family money into a few businesses, including an Ocean Springs newspaper and a coast bar he and Michael Janus co-owned. His last venture was as a partner in the now defunct Maxwell-Walker consulting firm, a lobbying and government wrangling group formed by he and former Pascagoula mayor Robbie Maxwell.
Janus, a former state representative, former D'Iberville city manager and former Chief of Staff for Congressman Steven Palazzo, was also indicted for his role in a $180,000 consulting fee he funneled to the younger Walker not properly submitted and acted upon by the D'Iberville City Council.
Maxwell is not listed in the indictments. Sources tell YP the former coast mayor wasn't directly involved in the deal under scrutiny and he cooperated fully with investigators, turning over any information requested.
As the younger Walker sought greater political clout and played the back room political scenes on the coast and around Jackson, Scott seemed invincible. He was found not guilty of driving under the influence thanks to an officer not properly signing the ticket. Charges were dropped after a scuffle in D.C. with a Wicker staffer he was seeing on the side. He divorced and remarried, and his new wife hired on with DMR.
And as if that weren't enough, Scott escaped not one but two harrowing plane landings, the first of which left him with significant back trouble. Both accidents were on trips with consulting clients, one of which was for a laundry facility now being built in Pascagoula by Maxwell-Walker friends to aid in the development of a new hotel currently under construction and a proposed assisted living facility which never developed.
Along the way the family acquired property, attended almost every social and political gathering, gained appointments to numerous boards and commissions, and climbed the social ladder. Bill was the quiet type while Scott cherished a good party and a stiff drink.
Sharon Walker, the matriarch of the family, worked for the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, which worked closely with DMR. IMMS contracted with the Maxwell-Walker firm in hopes of opening a new Ocean Expo and utilized their services for site selection and maneuvering through government channels. Janus' D'Iberville was eventually chosen as the site but it has yet to be developed. The dots there were easy to connect for most coast observers.
Momma Walker was also an Ocean Springs School Board member appointed by that city's board of alderman until earlier this year.
One piece of land Scott owned in the Gulf Hills Subdivision of Ocean Springs was purchased with funds made available through DMR, raising more than a few eyebrows. The transaction is now a part of the indictments.
As rumors swirled about the Walkers' troubles, they never shied away from the spotlight. They still attended parties and made their appearances at events such as the Bacot-McCarty Golf Tournament supporting that foundation, political fundraisers, and the Coast Legislative Reception in Jackson where a limo brought them to the door of the Trademart. Such audaciousness pointed to the tone deafness at least Scott had for what his family was facing.
To top it off, Scott made it a point to involve himself in a number of municipal elections this past spring even while his father was about to take the fall for their actions, sending distasteful messages to candidates he opposed and offering to fund their opponents in emails freely passed around.
It is as if the Walkers felt untouchable.
Theirs is a story of influence and of a father propping up a son's aspirations that has now come crashing down around them. One observer of the day's news commented, "When the humility left, it was the beginning of the end."
Truth be told, these indictments should make a number of related persons question their ties. Smoke has billowed around the Walkers for many years. Some only saw their philanthropic good deeds and sought inclusion. Others saw the truth behind the masks, making them outsiders.
Being from the coast and knowing how closely knit the Walkers are with a number of Hancock, Harrison and Jackson County businesses, banks, nonprofits, schools, and media guys it makes one wonder just how much further this investigation could go if authorities dug just a little deeper.
State Auditor Stacey Pickering would not rule out further investigative efforts as this next stage moves forward. That's smart because the web of politics, questionable ethics, and influence on the coast related to the Walkers is perhaps even more intriguing than the other coast black sheep, Dickie Scruggs.
The Sun Herald has persistently sought access to any and all public records as this saga has slowly developed. Their work has helped shed light on what many speculated about only in whispers. Though their tone at the end was a bit shrill and melodramatic
, especially towards the State Auditor, they smelled a rat at DMR just like everyone else.
This is a political win for Stacey Pickering, but it's more of a case of an elected official doing the right thing. The Walkers were active in Republican politics and Pickering, a Republican with his star still on the rise, took a beating in the press and in some political circles about how he handled the investigation.
At the end of the day, the indictments were handed down just like they were supposed to be. Instead of taking his case to the press and playing the usual political game, Pickering kept his mouth shut and his investigation moving forward in cooperation with the Feds. Now it's up to prosecutors to close the deal.
Yes, this is still America and all are presumed innocent until proven guilty. However, federal indictments don't come down on a state agency and their related dealings often so I'm fairly certain these wouldn't have dropped if the case wasn't sound.
Posted November 8, 2013 - 9:19 am