The U.S. Department of Justice is looking into claims from Rep. Bennie Thompson that federal and state officials are using local prosecutions to suppress African-American voting and political participation in Hattiesburg.
Thompson first contacted U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch in April to express his concerns and ask Lynch to look into the prosecutions and “other intimidation methods in furtherance of a local political agenda.”
The state’s lone Democrat in Congress, Thompson told Lynch he “received many calls and letters from citizens and community leaders” in the Hattiesburg area, which is not in Thompson’s district, “alleging that there is an organized targeting of the African-American community” for political purposes.
“I implore you to not just assign this investigation to the U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of Mississippi,” Thompson wrote, “but rather, directly investigate this matter.”
In an Aug. 19 letter, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Peter J. Kadzik told Thompson, D-Bolton, that his “allegations of misconduct surrounding municipal elections” in Hattiesburg “are currently under review” by the agency’s offices of Professional Responsibility and Inspector General.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Jackson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In Thompson’s letter, he said all the complaints stem from Hattiesburg’s 2013 municipal election for which a re-vote was ordered by a circuit court. Ultimately, the city’s longtime mayor, Johnny Dupree, an African-American and a Democrat, was declared the winner.
In his letter, Thompson says that “high-profile” supporters of Dupree are being punished through actions by the FBI, District Attorney’s office, U.S. Attorney’s office in Jackson and the Mississippi state auditor.
Kelley Ryan, an auditor’s spokesperson, and Brett Carr with the FBI declined to comment. Other agencies named in Thompson’s letter have not yet responded to Mississippi Today’s inquiries.
Patricia Burchell, the district attorney for Forrest and Perry counties, and state Auditor Stacey Pickering are Republicans. The FBI is a part of the Department of Justice, and U.S. Attorney Greg Davis of Jackson was appointed by President Obama.
Federal prosecutions are pending against the Rev. Kenneth Fairley, Dupree’s campaign manager, and Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Charles Bolton and his wife, Linda, also Dupree supporters.
Fairley is charged with fraud in a housing rehabilitation program, and the Boltons are charged with income tax evasion. Fairley is set for a Sept. 6 trial and the Boltons on Sept. 16, both before U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett.
Court documents show that the Bolton case is being handled by federal prosecutors from Louisiana’s Eastern District in New Orleans.
in his letter, Thompson calls the Boltons’ indictment “the most-clearly veiled attempt at suppression as there is clear evidence that Chief Deputy Bolton had no part in evading taxes, but rather cashed checks for an individual who used his business.”
Among other issues the congressman raised with Lynch are:
• The resignation of a city clerk because of threats from two city council members
• The issuance of seven misdemeanor indictment accusations of voter fraud
• A lawsuit against the city attorney for investigating a misconduct claim
Thompson told Lynch in his letter: “At the very least, this is a case of overreaching by local, state and federal officials as a way of punishing political enemies. 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.”
“Either way, it is extremely important that these charges be looked into.”