Meridian, Miss. U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran's campaign officials are dismissing allegations by a Meridian man that they paid for the votes of African-Americans in the June 24 runoff with state Sen. Chris McDaniel.
The story broke Monday from conservative blogger, Charles C. Johnson who made the allegations on gotnews.com. State and national media outlets picked up the story Tuesday.
Johnson says he paid a Meridian man named Stevie Fielder, who identified himself as associate pastor of First Union Missionary Baptist Church, to give him the interview.
Fielder is quoted as saying he delivered "hundreds, or even thousands" of black voters to the polls, and shows texts that he says prove Cochran's campaign told him to pay black voters $15 each to vote for Sen. Cochran.
Newscenter 11 was not able to locate Fielder Tuesday, but we did reach some First Union church members. They did not want to be on camera but did go on record with us, saying Fielder is not associate pastor of their church.
Retired educator, Robert Markham, said he personally would not do business with Fielder because Fielder had legal problems with church members, who paid him to do work.
Former Lauderdale County Democratic Party leader, Melba Clark, said, "It's all a bunch of lies. And Fielder does not have a good reputation."
Fielder is also being linked with state Rep. Greg Snowden of Meridian. Snowden was in Jackson Tuesday, but did talk with us by phone about the uproar.
"Of course, I know Stevie Fielder. He had worked for me in my campaign locally in 2011. I really haven't had any communication with him since then. I hired him to do the standard sort of stuff, put out signs for me, help get voters educated, particularly in the black community, about my campaign and try to encourage people to go to the polls and your typical stuff," Snowden said. "I certainly didn't ask him to do anything wrong, and as far as I know, he didn't do anything wrong in my campaign. I may be missing something, but now, I've looked at the voter totals in the Republican runoff, and there's just not a remarkable amount of predominantly African-American precincts where there was a larger turnout. So I find it hard to believe there was a lot of activity one way or the other."
Snowden says he is surprised by the allegations, and doesn't think the numbers make sense when compared with how Meridian and Lauderdale County voted one week ago.
Newscenter 11's statewide reporter, Courtney Ann Jackson, talked Tuesday with the communications director for Cochran's campaign, who says the campaign did have a business deal with Fielder.
"Mr. Fielder was paid a small amount of money, $300, to reimburse for his vehicles that he was using to transport get out the vote efforts," said Jordan Russell.
Russell said he didn't get the other $300 because he stopped campaigning. So, he says Fielder started calling their office, demanding money.
"What really amounts to extortion and we're not going to pay ransom," said Russell. "We're not going to pay extortion. And obviously his next move was to sell a story to a highest bidder."
Fielder captured screen shots he says were text messages with a Cochran staffer, Saleem Baird, the minority outreach director. Fielder says he was given envelopes with $15 inside. He claims he handed them out in exchange for Cochran votes. Envelope payments of a different sort aren't rare. Russell says they're for campaign workers and are in line with the law.
"It's $25 a shift and it's paid in an envelope. The reason that we would need the name and address is so that we can report all of our disbursements to the FEC (Federal Elections Commission)," Russell said.
Cochran's campaign is discussing the allegations with attorneys.
Here's a look at the results of last week's runoff in Lauderdale County:
Thad Cochran - 6,163
Chris McDaniel - 4,763
Cochran won with about 57 percent of the vote. But that wasn't much different than the first primary, when he received about 56 percent of the vote. There were about 2,000 more votes cast in the runoff than in the first primary.