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Jurors convict Hattiesburg pastor in federal theft case

A Hattiesburg pastor was convicted Monday on three counts of conspiracy and theft in a federal case involving money skimmed from a federal housing program.

Jurors returned guilty verdicts against the Rev. Kenneth Fairley after six hours of deliberation and a trial that stretched over parts of seven days.

Fairley is a longtime political ally of Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree, who attended parts of the trial and testified Saturday as a character witness. Fairley is also known nationally for once serving as the agent for University of Oklahoma running back Marcus Dupree, who’s from Mississippi. Dupree later sued Fairley. The mayor and the running back aren’t related.

WDAM-TV reported Fairley was taken into custody by U.S. Marshals after the verdict Monday and will be sentenced Nov. 21 by U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett. He faces up to 25 years in prison.

Jurors returned to court at least twice in deliberations, including once to ask about how to judge the conspiracy charge. At one point, jurors said they were deadlocked, but Starrett made them keep deliberating.

Government witnesses testified that Fairley took at least $60,000 of $98,000 in federal funds passed through the city to a Fairley-led nonprofit to rehabilitate two houses. Witnesses said it appeared little work had been done on the houses well after Hattiesburg sent the money to Fairley. The rest of the money was supposed to go to subsidize Fairley’s church.

State Auditor Stacey Pickering said Fairley is one of multiple people who were investigated in a joint state-federal probe of Hattiesburg-area officials. Another target of that probe, Forrest County Chief Deputy Charles Bolton, goes on trial Tuesday. Bolton and his wife face federal charges that they evaded income taxes by hiding income from their restaurant and liquor store.

The outlines of a possible case against Johnny DuPree were visible in Fairley’s trial, including a retired city employee who said he felt pressured by DuPree to go easy on Fairley’s nonprofit and testimony that DuPree met with Fairley and Picayune developer Artie Fletcher about problems with the rehabilitation effort.

Pickering acknowledged the close links between DuPree and Fletcher, who have been friends since seventh grade.

“We simply will follow the facts in this case,” Pickering told the Associated Press. “This case is far from over.”

A spokeswoman for DuPree didn’t immediately return a call seeking for comment. The mayor was not present in court Monday.

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi’s only Democrat in Congress, has asked the Justice Department to investigate whether the charges against Fairley and Bolton are retribution against African Americans who supported DuPree in Hattiesburg’s contested 2013 mayoral race.

Prosecutors played hours of taped conversations between Fairley and Fletcher. He had been indicted along with Fairley but pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of failing to report a felony just before trial started. Fletcher himself never took the stand.

Interurban Development, Fletcher’s company, made the bid to do the work for $98,000, with the plan being Fairley would use local workers to do it cheaper. A nonprofit controlled by Fletcher’s wife loaned “seed” money to Pine Belt Community Services, Fairley’s nonprofit. However, Fairley was unable to repay that loan after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development refused to approve him for further rehabilitation projects.

Fairley’s lawyers highlighted the fact that HUD eventually declared that he had provided adequate documents and restored Pine Belt to eligibility. However, HUD officials were highly critical of Fairley from the stand and said a parallel criminal investigation never stopped.

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