Written Reply Falls Short of Admitting There Never Was A Contract. Proof Said To Have Been Destroyed In Accordance With “Document Retention Policy.”
By Perry Hicks - Special to GCN Filed: 7/18/04
Friday, the Harrison County Development Commission complied with a written demand for public records by Gulf Coast News founder, Keith Burton.
Former HCDC Executive Director, Mike Olivier, had made the claim to the Louisiana news media and reported in the Baton Rouge newspaper The Advocate, June 24th, that negative stories about him were due to “anger” Burton harbored over losing a contract with the commission. Burton stated unequivocally that he had never done any work for the commission and certainly had nothing to be angry about. “I'm a journalist covering a story. That is all," said Burton.
Olivier had made his comment while speaking to Louisiana reporters during a press conference announcing his appointment to the state's top economic development job.
Burton had given HCDC 14 days to comply with the public records law and provide him with a copy of “his contract.” He has also demanded an apology from former HCDC Executive Director, Mike Olivier, and marketing director, Brynn Joachim and all other members of the HCDC. Both Olivier and Joachim are no longer with the commission.
In a previous brouhaha over a citizen request for records, HCDC had actually sued Coast resident Henry “Tut” Kinney, claiming that his repeated requests were “harassment.” The court ruled against the commission and ordered it to produce the documents, fined the commission $100 and further ordered the commission to pay Kinney’s legal fees totaling $8160. HCDC asked the judge to reconsider the decision but was admonished by the judge and ordered to not only comply but to pay Kinney’s additional legal costs of $2205.
HCDC has been criticized for shredding financial and other documents leaving no audit trail to follow at a later date. The Commission has also been accused of continuing to shred documents even while Kinney’s case proceeded through the courts. As would then be expected, there is considerable irony in HCDC being unable to find proof of Burton’s employment due to the alleged contract having been “destroyed in accordance with their document retention policy.”
In a response to Burton’s demand, attorney Eric Wooten of Allen, Vaughn, Cobb, & Hood gave this explanation:
“Please note that HCDC’s record retention policies, as approved by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, for documents regarding contract labor and consulting services vary between retention periods of three to five years after contract completion. In addition, financial records pertaining to accounts payable and HCDC’s monthly bank statement are subject to destruction following completion of at least three annual audits. It is my understanding that the HCDC retains an independent C.P.A. firm to conduct an annual audit every year, and that the financial records are subject destruction after approximately four years.”
This document retention policy detailed by Wooten differs markedly from the experience of former HCDC commissioner, C. Paige Gutierrez. In an exclusive GCN Guest Opinion, Gutierrez wrote:
“When Supervisor Rockco asked for expense records of HCDC—a county agency she is sworn to oversee—we learned that HCDC financial records (credit cards and others) were destroyed by staff after the agency’s annual audit was complete. Only eleven months’ worth of original financial records existed! For credit cards, records over eleven months old existed only as the total owed for the month—not the individual purchases or receipts.”
A HISTORY OF CHARACTER ASSASSINATION
The controversy with HCDC has been over lavish entertainment and other spending without a good business purpose, excessive secrecy, mismanagement of funds, recommending tax breaks to businesses with insufficient benefit to the county, other business favoritism, employing the executive director without a contract, releasing contracts for consulting over $25,000 of value without approval from the Harrison County Board of Supervisors, and questionable changes in legal and accounting representation. There has also been a serious charge of character assassination directed toward anyone who places a demand on or criticizes the commission.
Last October, former HCDC President Bruce Nourse side-stepped five separate reforms recommended by Gutierrez and fellow commissioner Richard Bennett and instead attacked her directly saying:
“If you look closely at the record that Paige Gutierrez has compiled since her appointment to the Development Commission, it becomes clear that she has pursued an agenda that is focused on distracting and disgracing the commission and its staff. This is a commissioner who can make allegations on the one hand but, on the other hand, not fully participate in the position to which she was appointed. Mrs. Gutierrez has attended, in the past year, only 10% of her committee meetings and only 28% of all the meetings held by the commission.”
Gutierrez demanded an apology from Nourse saying, "Moreover, the committee meetings that I attend have not necessarily been the ones that Bruce Nourse and Michael Oliver have “assigned” me to attend, at which I am “allowed” to vote. My participation in “unassigned” but significant meetings was left out of the computations cited by Nourse in media reports, for obvious reasons," Gutierrez said.
Nourse had also said, “This issue has been discussed beyond its merits and is the opinion of one commissioner. It should be noted that ten other commissioners charged with the responsibility of overseeing the commission are very comfortable with its operations and activities.”
As might be expected, Gutierrez saw it differently. “Nourse claims that other commissioners are very comfortable with HCDC’s operations and activities. This is not true of all current commissioners, and it is not true of all past commissioners. There are other commissioners, past and present, that have been unable or unwilling to speak out publicly for fear or repercussions in their jobs, businesses or social relationships,” said Gutierrez.
HCDC FACTUALLY CHALLENGED
In the case of Burton, HCDC’s pattern of being factually challenged continues with the reply from Allen, Vaughn, Cobb, & Hood. The letter ends with:
“The records requested would have been from the 1991-1992 fiscal year: therefore the HCDC staff was unable to locate the requested records.”
In response to The Advocate’s query into Olivier’s claim of an un-renewed contract, marketing director Brynn Joachim said that Burton did not have a written contract but his computer and management information services were budgeted as if he had a contract and that said work was done 8 to 10 years ago. Joachim went on to tell The Advocate that she was not sure of the exact dates because the records were kept offsite.
Without setting an actual time frame for Burton’s alleged dismissal, Olivier’s original claim had a certain ring of immediacy to it, as if the alleged contract had not been renewed recently. Thus, surveying statements of Olivier, then Joachim, and finally that Wooten leaves the impression of a sliding time-line extending from recently to 8-10 years and then to 12-13.
Wooten should have stuck with one of the two original stories because Keith Burton wasn’t in the computer business in 1991-92. Burton was an employee of Love Communications and commuted to work in Hattiesburg. Burton didn’t even begin his migration into computer technology until 1995.
“I didn’t do any work for them in 2004, not in 1996, not in 1991,” said Burton. “And they know better. The leaders of the development commission recently went before the Harrison County Board of Supervisors saying they just wanted to seek a new direction. But this latest letter from the HCDC’s attorney Eric Wooten demonstrates that is all just smoke and mirrors.”