Cochran campaign threatens legal action against vote-buying accusers

news_politics_greenTerri Ferguson Smith

The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN – An allegation of vote buying by a campaign volunteer in Meridian for Sen. Thad Cochran has prompted a Cochran campaign staffer to threaten legal action against the volunteer and the blogger who published his story.

Cochran defeated Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel in the second primary on June 24 by about 6,000 votes statewide. The party primary was contentious at times and McDaniel led the three-man race in the first primary, but failed to get a simple majority. Cochran, who has held the U.S. Senate seat for 36 years, won the second primary after appealing to African-American voters who traditionally vote Democratic to cross party lines in the second primary. Many did and Cochran won the second primary and so will compete with Democrat Travis Childers in the November general election.

A week after the second primary, a former campaign volunteer made the allegation of vote-buying.

Reporting on the website Gotnews, reporter Charles Johnson quoted Stevie Fielder, who claimed he had been offered money by a Cochran campaign staffer for buying African-American votes for the senator.

In the story, Fielder said he delivered “hundreds or even thousands of blacks” to the polls after being offered $16,000 to buy votes and after being convinced by a Cochran campaign operative that Chris McDaniel was a racist.

“They (the Cochran campaign) told me to offer blacks fifteen dollars each and to vote for Thad,” Fielder was quoted as saying.

After the election, he was not paid as was promised, he was quoted as saying in the article. Fielder told Gotnews that he then took a closer look at McDaniel’s campaign and realized that the candidate was not, in fact, a racist.

Fielder said he felt bad about what he did and although he was paid by Gotnews for his story, he would have come forward anyway.

A photo of a text message accompanying the Gotnews story from a campaign staffer appears to confirm a promise of monetary exchange, but the Cochran campaign has an explanation for that, as well as some advice for Fielder and for Johnson: Get a lawyer.

Cochran campaign spokesman Jordan Russell said the allegations of Steve Fielder are absolutely false.

“They are completely false and have no basis in fact,” Russell said. “These two men, Mr. (Charles) Johnson and the so-called pastor in Meridian should be getting a lawyer because we’re definitely talking to our lawyers about taking legal action against both of them. There is actually no basis to their claims. They are false and that’s really all there is to it.”

Russell said Fielder was paid as a campaign volunteer to drive other volunteers as they went door to door to ask them to vote for Cochran. When he did not do what he was hired to do, they stopped paying him, Russell said. That’s when Fielder tried to extort money from the campaign, according to Russell.

“We’re not going to put up with extortion so obviously we didn’t pay him anything else when he stopped doing what he was supposed to do. We’ve never bought anybody’s vote. We never will,” Russell said.

There are very specific rules set up for payment of campaign volunteers, he said. Their volunteers were paid $25 per shift for knocking on doors. The reason a staffer text messaged Fielder and asked for names and addresses of volunteers was so he could report the income. Volunteers are routinely paid in cash, but it is all recorded and reported, Russell said.

“That’s why the employee in question was asking him for the names and addresses of the people knocking on doors because if they are knocking on doors, they have forms to fill out and they get paid and it’s all recorded,” Russell said. “We compensate people for their time just like any other campaign does.”

Campaign volunteers were paid for knocking on doors, but no voters were paid to vote for Cochran, he said.

Really a pastor?

In the story, Fielder referred to himself as an associate pastor at First Union Missionary Baptist Church in Meridian. Not so, said longtime member Melba Clark, who is also a member of the local NAACP chapter and a member of the Lauderdale County Executive Committee.

“No. That’s a lie. He is not a pastor at First Union. He never has been,” Clark said. “He does attend First Union on occasion, but he is not the pastor of First Union.”

Clark said she had not heard anyone say anything about vote-buying until Tuesday.

John Flowers, chairman of the Lauderdale County Democratic Executive Committee, said he had not heard of vote-buying or attempts to buy votes either. However, he did say he voted Democrat in both the first and second primaries.

“The Democratic Party did not endorse nor encourage people to vote Republican in the runoff,” Flowers said. “It was not sanctioned by, nor endorsed nor encouraged by the Lauderdale County Democratic Party – or the state party – because we are Democrats and we vote Democrat.”

On Tuesday, Brandon Jones, director of the Mississippi Democratic Trust, called on state officials to investigate.

“This election has already provided more than its share of tragic and bizarre stories. Now, the specter of election fraud has been raised. The citizens of this state were sold a package of voting laws by leaders who told us that their main concern was election integrity,” Jones said in an emailed statement.

“These leaders, like Secretary of State (Delbert) Hosemann, now have an opportunity to show that all the talk about protecting the vote wasn’t politics as usual. Because election integrity laws should never be enforced selectively based on party, we call on Secretary Hosemann and local law enforcement officials to treat these allegations with the seriousness they deserve.”

A spokesperson for Hosemann said his office does not have prosecutorial authority. That authority lies with local district attorneys and the Mississippi Attorney General.

A spokesperson from the AG’s office said it is their policy to neither confirm nor deny investigations.

Noel Fritsch, spokesman for the McDaniel campaign, said voters across the state have reported voting irregularities.

“We certainly hope the Cochran campaign and his super PAC were not involved with the vote buying scheme Rev. Fielder alleged in his interview, but the claims are direct criminal allegations against Cochran’s campaign,” Fritsch said. “Sadly it’s not the first time allegations of criminal conduct have been made against his camp.”

Attempts by The Meridian Star to reach Fielder were unsuccessful.