The FBI appears to be looking into a land transaction in the Gulf Hills subdivision of west Jackson County involving Bill Walker, the former head of the Department of Marine Resources; his son, Scott Walker; and the Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain.
The Sun Herald was unable to find out if the FBI inquiries are part of ongoing state and federal investigations into the operations of the DMR that led to Bill Walker’s firing.
But two men, one of them using a badge to identify himself as an FBI agent, went door to door last fall in the upscale Gulf Hills neighborhood of Bay Sweep Circle, where Scott Walker had owned a lot on the water.
Then Dec. 12, an FBI agent requested copies of DMR permitting records that had allowed construction of a bulkhead on the property in 2008.
And last week, a board member of the Land Trust said the organization has turned over records to the FBI including appraisals, purchase documents and the DMR grant the organization used to buy the lot.
A spokeswoman for the FBI said Friday, “Because of the ongoing investigation, the FBI cannot comment.”
According to documents the Sun Herald obtained and reported on in November, Bill Walker signed a voucher giving a $210,000 grant to the Land Trust, a nonprofit that works closely with the DMR. That organization, in turn, bought the property from Scott Walker for $190,000 and conserved it.
The grant came through the DMR’s National Heritage Area office. According to DMR records, $100,000 of the grant was Heritage money, granted to Mississippi through the National Park Service. Scott Walker was a member of the commission for the Coast’s Heritage Area in 2010.
But according to National Heritage Area guidelines, its money isn’t supposed to be used to buy land. Judy Steckler, director of the Land Trust, told the Sun Herald in the fall that when National Park Service representatives made her aware of the restriction, she believed the DMR substituted state money for the Heritage money.
Bill Reynolds, a spokesman for the Atlanta office of the Park Service, said Friday, however, the issue hasn’t been totally resolved. He called the use of Heritage money in the buy a “correctable error,” which means the Park Service can “recapture the funds.”
But he said the agency is waiting for the results of an audit of the DMR by the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Interior before taking any action.
The DMR is a lead agency for the spending of hundreds of millions of federal dollars that come to the state through different sources for the preservation, restoration and promotion of the Mississippi Coast.
The Bay Sweep Circle purchase was not the first time it had come to light that a DMR official used public money they control to buy property from a family member. A report from the OIG audit in September revealed Tina Shumate, head of the DMR’s CIAP and National Heritage programs, used federal CIAP money to buy her parents’ home site in Pascagoula.
Who are those guys?
FBI agents who came to Bay Sweep Circle asked residents if they knew Scott Walker or his father. They asked how long Scott Walker had been trying to sell the lot before the Land Trust bought it.
They asked who built the bulkhead, and when.
Jim Keys, who lives next door to the lot, said his interview lasted about 10 minutes and happened in late November or early December.
Another neighbor said one line of questioning focused on the selling price of the lot.
At the DMR’s Coastal Ecology office, the FBI took a copy of the first page of technical drawings of the lot that included the bulkhead and boat lift.
The DMR issued the permit for the bulkhead work in April 2008, work that was estimated to cost $21,000, according to the documents.
It showed the bulkhead would be 217 feet long and 2 feet wide and comply with specifications in the Mississippi Coastal Wetlands Protection Act.
Blueway or green space?
When the Sun Herald first asked Steckler about the selection of the lot, she said, “We have a blueway on Old Fort Bayou.”A blueway is a waterway delineated as a boat trail.
She said with the Bay Sweep Circle lot, the Land Trust would have “a little less busy section of the waterway.”
But the lot sits at the end of Bayou Porteaux, more than 21/2 miles by water from the blueway, which begins at the Old Fort Bayou Bridge on Washington Avenue.
She also said the lot is near habitat for the green heron. The Land Trust does also buy and conserve lots just for their value as green space.
In the case of this lot, the neighbors would like it to remain green space that isn’t generally open to the public. Keys and others said they have met with Steckler and urged the Land Trust not to promote it as a popular birding site that would attract traffic to the cul-de-sac of six homes.
“We’re a neighborhood,” Keys said. “She said they would take our concerns under consideration and offered to put a chain across the entry.”