By Patsy R. Brumfield
OXFORD – Hal Neilson, Oxford’s former FBI chief, says he won’t let up until all the truth comes out about his career-ending humiliations at the hands of men at the top of the region’s federal law enforcement.
“It nearly killed me,” Neilson said last week in recalling the two years he knew he was under investigation, then put on trial accused of illegal involvement in a deal surrounding the FBI’s new office in Oxford.
A 2010 jury acquittal helped mend a few bruises, he admitted, but now he’s got some scores to settle.
“The truth never changes,” he said in an interview with the Daily Journal after publication of a Department of Justice report, which stated that Neilson’s professional troubles came out of retaliation from Jim Greenlee, who at the time was U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Mississippi.
Neilson, 51, said he disagrees with some parts of the DOJ report and will appeal those issues, but in general felt “vindicated” that his complaints about retaliation were affirmed by the highest authorities.
“How something like this can happen to anyone is mind-boggling,” he said.
Greenlee, appointed in 2001 by President George W. Bush, declined to respond to multiple interview requests by the Daily Journal. He retired from the post in 2010 as President Barack Obama looked around for his replacement.
Neilson retired from the FBI in January 2012 and immediately went into law practice with the attorney who spearheaded his acquittal, Christi R. McCoy.
He and McCoy now plan other legal moves against the people they insist ruined Neilson’s life, health and career because of their own alleged ambitions.
They still say they can’t quite believe some of the things that happened along the way.
One example they cite is a seemingly innocent meeting by Neilson and an associate about possible employment while Neilson was under indictment and suspended without pay from the FBI.
The meeting occurred at Connie’s Fried Chicken on South Gloster in Tupelo.
Later, McCoy notes, they learned through what’s called “discovery” – which is the process of securing information and documents gained by prosecutors about the case – that the FBI had at least six agents at the Connie’s meeting and were recording the men’s conversation, which is was not legal at that stage.
How this all began probably differs by who is telling the story.
But since Neilson is the only one talking, he tells it this way:
“From the first day he took office, (Greenlee’s) itinerary was very political,” Neilson says.
He insists that Greenlee had ambitions to become a federal judge, a lifetime appointment, and thought it was more attainable if he created a national reputation for himself.
Neilson said it almost became a joke that Greenlee looked persistently at case after criminal case for a link to Democratic Congressman Bennie Thompson so he could get credit for his removal from office.
The FBI is the federal government’s investigative arm. If a U.S. attorney wants something investigated, he or she asks the FBI to take a look and report what’s discovered.
But that’s not what Neilson says Greenlee’s office did back in 2004 with its own “terrorism” investigation of the region’s residents with Middle Eastern surnames. He also claims that FBI agents were pressured to take U.S. attorney’s documents to grand juries when the FBI had no part in the investigations.
Neilson reported that to his supervisors.
Then in 2005 along came the beef plant scandal, which grew out of the $50 million failure of a state-funded processing plant in Yalobusha County.
Several people were indicted and went to prison. Neilson said Greenlee wanted to know who all the targets were, in case “they were friends of his.”
The FBI chief complained officially that Greenlee directed his assistants to conduct interviews outside the presence of FBI agents, and that a possible conflict of interest existed because Greenlee’s brother-in-law, Robert Whitwell, was a law partner with Anthony Farese of Ashland, who represented a beef plant case defendant.
The DOJ report states that Jackson’s top FBI official, Neilson’s boss, met with Greenlee, who admitted the outside interviews, but never addressed the beef plant allegation. Subsequently, Neilson was removed from any role in the beef plant investigation.
DOJ investigators later concluded that Greenlee’s involvement in the beef plant investigation did not violate any regulation about personal conflicts although concerns were raised by the FBI about the interview procedures.
Neilson considered himself a whistleblower to be accorded employment protections because of that status.
He also blames Tom Dawson, who was Greenlee’s top assistant, among others for his career and legal troubles. Dawson did not respond to two interview requests.
In late 2007, the record shows, Greenlee raised his own questions about Sardis Lake property Neilson owned with two other Oxford men. The two partners were officers in an Oxford real estate business which got the contract to built a new FBI office in 2004.
Greenlee wondered if Neilson had anything to do with steering the project to his friends. The Office of Inspector General launched an investigation of Greenlee’s allegations.
They wired up one of the Sardis partners to talk to Neilson about the probe. “Just tell the truth was my advice to him,” Neilson said.
In early 2008, Greenlee contacted FBI Director Robert Mueller to ask him to move Neilson out of north Mississippi.
He said Neilson had “declared war” on the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Investigation of Neilson continued through 2009, when Neilson was moved to work in Washington, D.C. He thinks it was aimed at getting him out of Oxford for a while.
On his son’s birthday, Jan. 14, 2010, Neilson’s friend Christi McCoy spoke to him via telephone. “How are you doing?” she said, with sympathy in her voice.
When Neilson responded that he was doing just great, McCoy said she responded, “My God, you don’t know, do you?”
“Know what?” he said.
“That you’ve been indicted,” McCoy answered.
With that news, Neilson said his emotions sank. “Everything you think could never happened just happened,” he recalled. “It was a horror.”
Through panic attacks and triple heart bypass surgery, Neilson prepared to defend himself, his family and what was left of his career.
McCoy signed on to take his case, along with Ronald Michael and Seth Pounds of Booneville.
Trial began that November. It ran two weeks before a jury.
In the end, the jury believed Neilson had not lied about his financial dealings and they acquitted him on two counts but weren’t conclusive on three others. Ultimately, out-of-state prosecutors decided to drop the other charges when they determined they couldn’t prove them beyond a reasonable doubt.
Neilson said that day, he could breathe free again. But there was fire in his breath.
Nearly 10 years out from the start of his troubles, Neilson remains adamant that Greenlee and Dawson should be legally accountable for what he calls prosecutorial misconduct, along with any others tied to them.
“Their day is coming,” he said last week, sitting in the conference room of the Oxford law office he shares with McCoy.
He rejects the DOJ report conclusion that it won’t cite Greenlee for the retaliation, which got Neilson suspended and indicted, because the report says, it would have happened anyway.
“How can they say that?” he questioned, saying he annually reported his financial relationships to the FBI and never was told that anything was amiss.
He also insists that he never had any authority over the building project and never dissuaded any vendor from participating in the bid process.
The DOJ failed to slam Greenlee, Neilson speculates, because “it becomes a financial liability,” if DOJ does.
Neilson spoke wistfully as he looked back on the past decade. “I had so much faith in the FBI,” he said.
“I understand now why people don’t trust their own government – it’s only as good as the men and women in it.”
Neilson said he is committed to exposing the truth of what happened to him. He also said he’s grateful to his former FBI colleagues who stood up for him. Some testified for him at his trial.
“Am I mad? You better believe it,” he added about the experience. “It hurt me, but worse, it hurt my family and that was a huge mistake.”
He also claims he doesn’t care if he ever gets a dime in damages, “if I could get justice for Greenlee and Dawson.”
“They set out to ruin me and they failed.”