HATTIESBURG – A federal jury will begin deliberations Monday in the fraud case against pastor Kenneth Fairley Sr., a controversial figure here who is lauded for his good works as frequently as he is criticized for questionable dealings.
Fairley, 62, is charged with multiple counts that he conspired to defraud the U.S. government of $160,000 through a housing rehabilitation program here. If found guilty, he faces up to 20 years in prison.
Throughout the five-day trial, the local televangelist and senior pastor at the sprawling Mount Carmel Baptist Church complex has sat quietly at the defense table as his lawyers sought to convince the jury he is innocent.
Behind him sat rows of friends and supporters, including his wife of 44 years, Sandra, city councilwoman Deborah Delgado and parishioner Dessie Minor.
Fairley looks tired and his eyes have been red-rimmed during his court appearances. His wife said he’s just back from Atlanta for treatment of prostate cancer.
It’s not difficult to find people who don’t like Fairley, but they won’t give their names or go on the record with specific concerns. Tom Gorman, who operates the spirited internet blog “Hattiesburg Patriot,” says he understands why.
“I’m not surprised people don’t want their names used to talk about Ken Fairley,” Gorman said, noting he’s written extensively about local politics and has slit tires, busted windshields and physical assaults to show for it.
Delgado, who regularly has been at the trial to show support for Fairley, describes him as “the single most important political figure in Hattiesburg, if not the state.”
Fairley isn’t just a pastor of a huge congregation – he also mentors, trains and organizes people around local elections.
He’s been campaign manager for his high-school classmate, Mayor Johnny Dupree, throughout Dupree’s multiple terms at the city’s helm. Fairley and Dupree were among the first African-Americans athletes to integrate the Hattiesburg Blair High School football team. Fairley was team captain. Dupree testified briefly Saturday as a defense witness for Fairley.
“He’s always concerned about leveling the political playing field. He does it like no other,” said Delgado, 64, who’s known Fairley for 45 years. She laughed as she mentioned that Fairley was a groomsman in her wedding.
“He’s got a big target on his back, it’s heartbreaking,” Delgado said. “There’s a concerted effort to paint him as an evil person. He feeds the hungry and he’s not well.”
Foxworth native Minor, with tears in her eyes, has this description of Fairley: “He cares about people.” She’s seen him do that up close.
Minor, 67, was his former administrator at Mount Carmel, located on West Main Street. The congregation moved there in 1997 to establish day care, an elementary school and a community development firm named Pinebelt Community Services, in addition to worship.
“His vision is to empower the community in education, voter registration and to rebuild community housing,” said Minor, a retired Santa Fe Railroad employee. “It is such a progressive church – but the storm took all that away.”
In 2013, an EF- 4 tornado tore through Hattiesburg and devastated a large swath of town, including parts of the University of Southern Mississippi campus.
Mount Carmel Church took a hammer blow from the storm. Today it is a shattered shell of its former self, looking a bit like a zombie church with huge dark gaps in its once gleaming exterior and cracks in its roofs.
Repairs are on hold because federal disaster aid went straight to the bank, which holds its mortgage, instead of to the church.
The federal fraud investigation and resulting charges against Fairley have taken their toll, Minor says, noting the church’s smaller congregation and its financial difficulties.
One person who many expect to show up for the jury verdict is Marcus Dupree, one of the finest high school athletes ever to come out of Mississippi. The massively recruited Neshoba County native played into his sophomore year at the University of Oklahoma before walking away, disillusioned by coaching criticism.
That’s when Dupree, then 20, met Fairley, who according to an ESPN documentary, promised to get Dupree enrolled and playing football at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Mississippi Today was unable to contact Dupree. Legal documents and the documentary “The Best That Never Was” by ESPN’s 30 For 30 program, go into great detail about Dupree and Fairley’s relationship.
Dupree’s childhood friend Alvin Kidd said, for the film, that while Dupree was at Oklahoma, Fairley “was telling him he deserved what the other kids were getting,” like new cars, fancy clothes and apartments.
Former Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer says in the film that Fairley wanted to influence Dupree toward USM so he could build his control over the young man and market him to professional football.
Kidd said Fairley “was working under the table with the USFL,” the fledgling, short-lived U.S. Football League. “It was all about keeping his hands on him – (Marcus) was his prize bull,” Kidd said. Dupree signed a $5-million, five-year contract with the USFL’s New Orleans Breakers.
But while Dupree was running on the field, Fairley was running his pay checks with power of attorney, the film says. After Dupree was injured and couldn’t play, Dupree said in the film that “hands started dipping into the pot” and he “had to pay out a big check to keep from going to jail” because of legal demands.
When the ESPN film aired a few years ago, Dupree was driving commercial trucks and completely out of athletics.
At that time, Fairley declared there “never was any fraud – I never professed to be an agent.”
In a 1987 lawsuit filed by Dupree against Fairley in Forrest County Chancery Court, Dupree claimed that in 1983, while he was a USM student, Fairley approached him to be his agent for professional football and later gained “complete control” over Dupree’s finances and money.
The lawsuit claims the Breakers took out a $4.53 million Lloyds of London disability insurance policy for Dupree in case he was injured or disabled while playing football. Dupree said Fairley lied to him about his attorneys’ payment demands and then when Dupree won the case Fairley began withdrawing large amounts from the account.
Dupree’s action asked the court to stop Fairley’s intervention in his financial affairs and for repayment and punitive damages totaling $3 million.
Fairley and Dupree settled out of court in 1989, with the Hattiesburg American reporting that Dupree received $500,000 from Fairley. The settlement was sealed by the court.
In 2013, Picayune developer Artie Fletcher sued Fairley in Forrest County Circuit Court claiming the pastor, through his Pinebelt Community Services group, owed Fletcher some $160,000 he advanced on two housing rehabilitation projects – at 127 E. Fifth Street and 202 South St.
The charges in Fletcher’s lawsuit became the basis for the federal charges against Fairley. Federal prosecutors say Pinebelt overbilled for repair work and then pocketed the difference.
Sandra Fairley said the two of them accepted Jesus Christ as their savior within hours of each other on April 10, 1972. They have two grown sons and are raising a granddaughter.
In 2007, their sons pleaded guilty to federal mortgage fraud charges. One spent seven months in prison and the other was sentenced to 60 months probation and to repay $97,000 restitution.
Sandra Fairley sees her husband as a “fighter” for what’s right, throughout their 42-year marriage.
“He’s been fighting all his life – he feels God wants him to level the field of play,” she says.