In 2014, Bryan Bailey, the sheriff of Rankin County, Miss., made what seemed like a series of routine requests of the local district attorney’s office.
He needed grand jury subpoenas, he said, to force the phone company to turn over records of calls and text messages for what he called a “confidential internal investigation.”
Sheriff Bailey scrawled a brief note on a subpoena form and gave it to a paralegal in the district attorney’s office. “Please keep this confidential between you and I,” the note read. “Possible wrongdoing by 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 tapped into the power of a grand jury at least eight times over a year to spy on his married girlfriend and the school employee with whom she was also “unfaithful,” the documents show.
The investigative report, compiled in 2016 by the district attorney at the time, Michael Guest, laid out evidence that Sheriff Bailey had duped the prosecutor’s office and potentially violated state law on fraud, a felony that carries up to five years in prison.
Mr. Guest, now a U.S. congressman and chairman of the House Committee on Ethics, decided he could not pursue the case further because of conflicts of interest, including his years long friendship with the sheriff. He told two local judges what he had discovered and passed his investigation on to the state attorney general.
And that’s where the matter ended.
According to interviews with former staff members in the attorney general’s office, no one questioned the sheriff or conducted a full investigation. Jim Hood, the attorney general at the time, asked a senior attorney to look into the matter 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. That agency could have reviewed the allegations and possibly revoked Sheriff Bailey’s certification.
For seven years, every elected official who learned of the allegations kept them secret from the public, leaving citizens of Rankin County in the dark, even as they twice voted to re-elect Sheriff Bailey. He is on the verge of another re-election, having won the Republican primary in August and facing no opponent in November.
His conduct is the latest in a series of examples uncovered by The Times and Mississippi Today of how sheriffs in Mississippi can act with impunity, often using the power of their office to weaponize the criminal justice system for their own benefit with no risk of being held accountable, even when faced with serious allegations of abuse.
Sheriff Bailey did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did local officials aware of the allegations and the report, including then-Circuit Court Judges John H. Emfinger and William E. Chapman III. Mr. Guest declined to comment.
Ilyssa Daly examines the power of sheriffs’ offices in Mississippi as part of The Times’s Local Investigations Fellowship. Jerry Mitchell, co-founder of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting that’s now part of Mississippi Today, is an investigative reporter who has examined civil rights-era cold murder cases in the state for more than 30 years.