On Your Side Report: Public corruption in the Pine Belt
HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Former Forrest County Chief Deputy Charles Bolton and his wife, Linda Bolton, were convicted of tax crimes after a multi-year investigation that started with the Forrest County Jail.
The duo was convicted in September 2016 on a combined 14 charges that related to filing false tax returns and tax evasion associated with their two businesses.
In their sentencing, the Forrest County Jail and jail food was a topic heavily discussed by District Judge Keith Starrett.
"Here's a situation where individuals misusing public or tax payer assets," said Jerome McDuffie, Internal Revenue Service, special agent in charge over Louisiana and Mississippi. "In this case, foods paid for by the tax payers that were supposed to go into the jail system, but actually found their way into businesses owned by the Boltons."
Those businesses were Sports 22 and Hall Avenue Package Store, both located in Hattiesburg on Hall Avenue.
"They were taking over $700,000 of food that was bought for the jail to be used for the inmates in the jail and then diverting that to their own restaurants, and then selling it, preparing it and selling it to their customers," said Christopher Freeze, Federal Bureau of Investigation, special agent in charge of Mississippi.
After these allegations involving the Forrest County Jail and food theft surfaced, the FBI and IRS both got involved in 2013. During their investigation, they combed through county and personal financial records reaching back to 2009.
"They sold these items and they profited from the items and in such, we perused them for failure to properly report those monies that the income generated from that endeavor," McDuffie said.
During the Boltons' time in court, food from the Forrest County Jail was mentioned along with where and how the duo would cater events, at such places like Manheim Auto Auctions.
In 2015, invoices from Merchants Food Service surfaced, and detailed things like racks of ribs, clam strips, catfish, pulled pork and pork chops, all purchased by the Forrest County Jail.
An invoice from Jan. 14, 2014, shows the purchase of one case, which contains 6 pounds of clam strips, for a total of $16.83. Another purchase on that same invoice is for one case, which contains 5 pounds of seafood gumbo, for $66.47.
One other invoice from Jan. 27, 2014, shows one case of pork ribs, cooked and seasoned, for $76.26.
Another invoice from June 26, 2011, shows the purchase of two cases of catfish fillets, for $158.30.
Forrest County Sheriff Billy McGee made statements in 2015 that some of these items are actually served at the Forrest County Jail, but those items do not include ribs or clam strips.
"It's just, dumbfounding. It's just unfathomable that a chief law enforcement officer would do everything in his power to subvert justice to line his own pockets," Freeze said.
Prior to the Boltons' convictions, Sheriff Billy McGee denied any food ever being stolen from the jail.
"I'm not shocked as much as I am disappointed, and I'm always disappointed when I hear that a public official or law enforcement officer is caught up in crime themselves and lining their own pockets for their own benefit," Freeze said.
During the trial, hundreds of thousands of dollars were detailed including checks, bank statements and other ledgers kept by the Boltons were used as evidence.
The defense included multiple items including checks and bank ledgers from long-time Hattiesburg attorney, John Lee, which prosecutors referred to as a smoke screen.
"All types of things are thrown into the mix, but at the end of the day our guys are trained to sift through the mud, sift through the minutiae and actually still come out and reach the appropriate conclusions," McDuffie said.
McDuffie said his agents spent countless hours and days, even weeks combing through records, and just followed the money.
"Our job is to go out and find those pieces of paper, track and follow the money trail from start to finish," McDuffie said. "We are extremely disappointed in these individuals; public trust is something that should be taken seriously, but we do pride ourselves on uncovering corruption."
The convictions link the Boltons to roughly $273,500 just in cashed checks from John Lee, that was allegedly for "food and liquor," from 2009 to 2013.
Federal prosecutors said those checks were cashed, and there is no proof where it ended up.
"We work very, very hard to make sure that the tax payer dollars are spent appropriately, and goes toward the endeavors that the money is supposed to go to," McDuffie said. "But when it comes to the tax payer's monies, no dollar amount is too small for us, we are going to pursue those monies with our federal law enforcement counterparts."
"What often happens is we come in at times and we do an investigation and one or two people seem to be arrested and maybe that's the extent of it," Freeze said. "But I can assure you at times, that is only the tip of the iceberg, and it may continue to go on for a number of months or even years as we continue to put cases together."
Both Freeze and McDuffie had strong messages for those who may be breaking the law.
"Those would be public officials who want to engage in this type of criminal conduct, we're a force to be reckoned with, and we'll come out and we will take care of the situation," McDuffie said.
Freeze said, "If you're committing a crime, we will find you, you will be prosecuted and you will spend time in federal prison."
Freeze could not comment on any ongoing investigation, but gave a brief answer to the presence of the FBI in the Hub City.
"Any investigation I'm not going to elaborate what we do and don't have open, but I will go back and say this. We are here, we plan to stay here in the general area for the long foreseeable future and crimes that are brought to our attention, whether it's public corruption or anything else, we will address," Freeze said.
District Judge Keith Starrett sentenced Charles Bolton to three years and nine months in prison for tax evasion and filing a false tax return. Linda Bolton was sentenced to two years and six months in prison for tax evasion.
Both are ordered to pay "jointly" $145,849.78 in restitution, and both will report voluntarily to prison within 60 days of their sentencing, which was March 17, 2017.
After the sentencing, Charles denied stealing anything from the Forrest County Jail.
"Linda Bolton and I have not taken a toothpick from the Forrest County Jail ever, and will not ever, and if you know, that's gone on since '13 and we've never been charged with that, so I consider that is just hearsay again, it's politics," Charles Bolton said.
We reached out to Charles Bolton for comment, but phone calls were not returned. One of his attorneys, Willie Huntley, said they had no comment pending the ongoing litigation with the appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Others charged in jail investigation:
Former Forrest County Jail Cook, Jerry Woodland, 53, was sentenced to one year in prison, with three years' supervised release and to pay $443,395.61 restitution, no interest, no fine and $100 special assessment.
Woodland appeared before District Judge Keith Starrett, Oct. 12, 2016, for his sentencing after it had been continued multiple times for "the best interest of justice," according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Golden.
Woodland entered a guilty plea in federal court in December 2014, when he appeared before Judge Starrett. Woodland was charged with one felony count of conspiracy in connection to ordering food items through the jail for personal use.
Another jail employee, Allen Haralson, the former kitchen supervisor at the jail, pleaded guilty to the same charge in November 2014. Both men were set free on bail under pre-trial supervision, however Haralson died at Forrest General Hospital in December 2014.
According to the case filed by the United States Attorney, Haralson and Woodland ordered food and food-related items between 2002 and 2014, along with others "known and unknown to the United States Attorney."
A statement from the U.S. Attorney's office stated that Haralson, Woodland and "others" also conspired to commit mail fraud in order to carry out their scheme by drafting and submitting Forrest County purchase requisition forms that contained fraudulent entries hiding various stolen food items, which has been revealed through the course of the investigation.