HATTIESBURG, Miss. — The U.S. Justice Department is reviewing questions from U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson as to whether investigators are unfairly targeting black officials in Forrest County.
The Democratic congressman wrote to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch in April questioning prosecutions of Rev. Kenneth Fairley and Forrest County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Charles Bolton. Thompson wrote that he was getting complaints that supporters of Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree have been singled out following the city’s contested 2013 election.
“At the very least, this is a case of overreaching by local, state and federal officials as a way of punishing political enemies,” Thompson wrote. “At its worst, this is a case of concerted action by many federal and state officials to target and manipulate the actions of African-Americans in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.”
Local media report Assistant Attorney General Peter J. Kadzik replied to Thompson Aug. 19, saying allegations are being reviewed by the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility and Office of the Inspector General.
The Rev. Kenneth Fairley and Artie Fletcher of Picayune were indicted March 10 on claims they skimmed at least $120,000 by inflating bills in a housing rehabilitation program. Fairley is a close political ally DuPree. On March 22, Forrest County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Charles Bolton and his wife, Linda, were indicted on federal charges that they evaded income taxes by hiding tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of income from businesses.
State Auditor Stacey Pickering said both cases originated from a task force of state and federal investigators based in Hattiesburg. He said he’s “confident in the professionalism” of state and federal investigators.
“I think when we have our day in court, we’ll be proven to have been good stewards of the taxpayers’ time, money, resources and the charge that we’ve been given as law enforcement officers to protect and defend the reputation, the integrity and uphold the laws of the state of Mississippi and the United States of America,” Pickering said.
The 2013 Hattiesburg mayor’s race between incumbent Mayor Johnny DuPree and then-City Councilman Dave Ware ended in claims of voting irregularities. After Ware challenged the outcome in court, a judge ordered a new election. DuPree narrowly won the second election.
Beyond the federal prosecutions, Thompson cited seven misdemeanor indictments of voter fraud and the resignation of the Hattiesburg City Clerk Eddie Myers, who was blamed by some for election problems.
Gregory Davis, southern Mississippi’s U.S. Attorney, is an African American appointed by President Barack Obama in 2012. But Thompson asked for an outside review, saying “it seems the behavior I have received complaints about has gone unnoticed by the Southern District.” Davis has not responded to the claims. The case against Bolton is being handled by federal prosecutors based in New Orleans.
Hattiesburg is in the 4th Congressional District of U.S. Rep Steven Palazzo, a Biloxi Republican. Thompson is Mississippi’s only Democrat and African American in Congress, representing the 2nd District covering the Mississippi Delta and parts of Jackson.