In 2014, Bryan Bailey, the sheriff of Rankin County, Mississippi, made what appeared to be a series of routine requests to the local prosecutor’s office.
He needed a grand jury subpoena, he said, to force the phone company to turn over call and text recordings for what he called a “confidential internal investigation.” .
Sheriff Bailey scribbled a brief note on a subpoena form and handed it to a paralegal at the prosecutor’s office. “Please keep this confidential between you and me,” the note read. “Possibly wrongdoing by a school district employee.” »
But his requests had nothing to do with alleged wrongdoing or any criminal investigation, according to a previously undisclosed report. obtained by The New York Times and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting at Mississippi Today. Instead, Sheriff Bailey exploited the power of a grand jury at least eight times over the course of a year to spy on his married girlfriend and the school employee with whom she was also “unfaithful,” according to the documents.
The investigative report, written in 2016 by then-District Attorney Michael Guest, presented evidence that Sheriff Bailey misled the DA’s office and potentially violated the state’s fraud statute, a punishable felony. five years in prison.
Mr. Guest, now a U.S. congressman and chairman of the House Ethics Committee, decided he could not pursue the case because of conflicts of interest, including his friendship with several years with the sheriff. He told two local judges what he had discovered and referred his investigation to the state attorney general.
And that’s where the affair ended.
According to interviews with former members of the attorney general’s office, no one questioned the sheriff or conducted a thorough investigation. Then-Attorney General Jim Hood asked a lead attorney to review the case but did not pursue criminal charges.
Neither his office nor Mr. Guest informed the state agency that oversees law enforcement certifications, even though Mr. Guest was a voting member of the board. This agency could have looked into the allegations and possibly revoked Sheriff Bailey’s certification.
For seven years, every elected official who learned of these allegations kept them secret, leaving the citizens of Rankin County in the dark, even though they voted twice to re-elect Sheriff Bailey. He is poised for re-election, having won the Republican primary in August and facing no opponents in November.
His conduct is the latest in a series of examples uncovered by The Times and Mississippi Today showing how Mississippi sheriffs can act with impunity, often using the power of their office to weaponize the criminal justice system for their own benefit. without risking being arrested. responsible, even in the face of serious allegations of abuse.
Sheriff Bailey and his department have been the subject of national scrutiny and a federal civil rights investigation since five deputies and a local police officer pleaded guilty this year to torturing two black men and shooting one of them in the mouth.
Sheriff Bailey did not respond to requests for comment. Local officials were also unaware of the allegations and the report, including then-Circuit Court Judges John H. Emfinger and William E. Chapman III. Mr. Guest declined to comment.
Mr. Hood said in a statement that he did not remember all the details of how the matter was handled, but he insisted that his office investigated and made the right decision in not not initiate proceedings.
He said he forwarded Mr. Guest’s report to Ed Snyder, who was a special assistant attorney general working part-time. Mr. Snyder recalled receiving the report, but said he was asked to “take a look,” not investigate. He said he had only looked at what criminal laws could be used to prosecute.
Normally, a case involving possible public corruption would have been handled by the Public Integrity Division within the attorney general’s office. Mr. Hood could not remember why he did not send the file there, but said he trusted Mr. Snyder’s judgment.
Mr. Hood’s best memory, he said, is that he chose not to press charges because the sheriff had a plausible reason to investigate the people targeted by the subpoenas. He said he believed his former office’s investigation found these people were involved in “criminal activity, possibly drug-related or a home burglary.”
But none of the people whose phone calls and text messages were subpoenaed have ever been charged in a drug or burglary case, or any other criminal case. And there is no public evidence that the subpoenas were part of a criminal investigation.
If there had been a legitimate criminal case involving Sheriff Bailey’s girlfriend, the sheriff should not have been involved in the case at all, said Matthew Steffey, an attorney and professor at Mississippi College Law School .
“There was a clear and profound conflict of interest here,” he said. “If there had been a legitimate criminal investigation, the sheriff should not have subpoenaed his own girlfriend’s phone records. And he certainly can’t do it without the advice or direction of the DA’s office.”
The fact that the sheriff has not been prosecuted or held accountable, despite the evidence against him, reflects “a total failure of our criminal justice system”, Professor Steffey added.
Mr. Guest began investigating Sheriff Bailey in the spring of 2016 after receiving a tip regarding his use of grand jury subpoenas.
He was initially “very doubtful” and began to look into the matter “in the hope of quickly putting an end to these rumors,” he wrote in his investigation report.
But he quickly discovered a series of phone records requests that seemed suspicious given the numbers Sheriff Bailey was targeting.
One of the numbers belonged to Kristi Pennington Shanks, a sheriff’s office administrative assistant who began a relationship with Sheriff Bailey while she was married, according to the report. The other belonged to a local school district employee with whom Ms. Shanks had also been involved, the report said.
Mr. Guest wrote in his report that his office was not part of any investigation into the school employee or Ms. Shanks. Ms. Shanks, who remains the sheriff’s girlfriend, did not respond to requests for comment.
According to copies of the subpoena requests included in Mr. Guest’s report, the first request came from a Rankin County deputy who sent an email to the prosecutor’s office on January 30, 2014. He requested a paralegal, Kim Amason, to write and stamp a subpoena for a list of the school employee’s outgoing phone calls that month. Ms. Amason did not respond to a request for comment.
Throughout 2014, there were at least seven other subpoenas for text messages and calls associated with the numbers of the former school employee and Ms. Shanks. Most of the requests directed the phone companies to send the records to Sheriff Bailey.
Grand juries, made up of around twenty people selected from the community, operate in secret. They investigate potential crimes, subpoena evidence, compel testimony, and decide whether charges should be filed.
Practices vary by state, but generally the prosecutor’s office files subpoena documents on behalf of the grand jury, without review by jurors or a judge. Law enforcement officers may request such subpoenas, serve them on the person or entity holding the records, and collect evidence directly. Afterwards, it’s a normal practice police officers must turn this evidence over to prosecutors, who keep permanent investigative files on the cases.
Under Mississippi law, grand jury subpoenas can only be issued to facilitate a legitimate criminal investigation. Violators can be prosecuted for fraud and risk years in prison.
A decade ago, the state attorney general’s office, led by Mr. Hood, charged a former Meridian police officer with wire fraud after he forged signatures on a grand jury subpoena to obtain his wife’s phone records when he suspected she had been unfaithful. He was convicted and spent a year in prison.
Experts said the statute of limitations had passed to bring potential lawsuits against the state that could have applied to Sheriff Bailey’s actions. But the details of the case could be subject to a second look by federal authorities.
Fred Shanks, whose ex-wife became Sheriff Bailey’s girlfriend and the target of his subpoenas, said he was recently questioned by the FBI. Mr. Shanks is Mr. Guest’s cousin and provided the initial information that prompted him to investigate.
In an interview with reporters, Mr. Shanks said he repeatedly told authorities that his and his girlfriend’s phones were being inappropriately tracked by Sheriff Bailey.
In 2015, after his divorce, Mr. Shanks began dating Kristen Liberto, an investigator with the Rankin County Sheriff’s Office.
Ms. Liberto said her professional relationship with the sheriff then deteriorated. She found herself under surveillance for leaving work to go to a chiropractor, and she discovered a tracking device attached to her car, she said. In October 2015, she said, Sheriff Bailey called her into his office and gave her two options: resign or be arrested for filling out fraudulent timecards.
She resigned and felt “absolutely devastated,” she said.
The sheriff also demanded that Ms. Liberto return a piece of county equipment that was in her possession. “I want my tracker back,” she remembers him saying.
Then, in 2016, Mr. Shanks received information that Sheriff Bailey had already obtained his and his ex-wife’s phone records. He said he immediately called Mr Guest.
“Several people could have done something about this, but they did nothing,” said Mr. Shanks, who has represented Rankin County in the Mississippi Legislature since 2018. “It raises the question of whether how many other people have done this? has?”
The post The Sheriff, His Girlfriend, and His Illegal Assignments appeared first on The New York Times.
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