Arthur Outlaw wanted a second term.

It was 1989 and Outlaw, the Republican mayor of Mobile, Alabama, was girding himself for his re-election campaign. Word was that Lambert Mims, a popular local Democrat, would run against him. Some Republicans were growing skittish.

But a close friend of Outlaw’s had something planned. The friend had been president of the state Young Republicans, chairman of the regional GOP, then a senior official in the Mobile County Republican party. And now he was the top federal prosecutor in southern Alabama.

“Jeff says that Mims won’t be around by that time,” an Outlaw aide said ominously, while discussing the election at a City Hall meeting that February, according to a sworn affidavit from an official who was in the room.

A few months later, Mims confirmed that he would be challenging Outlaw. Then Jeff Sessions made his move.

Sessions, then the US attorney for Alabama’s southern district, indicted Mims on criminal corruption charges relating to obscure four-year-old negotiations over a planned recycling plant. Mims was the ninth notable Democrat in the area to be indicted by Sessions since the young Republican was appointed by President Ronald Reagan. He would not be the last.

Opponents concluded that Sessions used his federal prosecutor’s office, and the FBI agents who worked for him, as political weapons, according to more than half a dozen veterans of Mobile’s 1980s legal and political circles. Some alleged in court filings that the ambitious young Republican actually worked from a “hitlist” of Democratic targets.

“Sessions was a gun for hire,” said Tom Purvis, a former sheriff of Mobile County, “and he went after political enemies.” Purvis was acquitted of charges against him that Sessions oversaw after Purvis unseated another Outlaw ally from the elected sheriff’s position.

The decades-old concerns have been revived by Donald Trump’s appointment of Sessions as US attorney general, and the mounting anxiety over his ability to remain even-handed as the nation’s most senior law enforcement official given his record of vigorous partisanship. Earlier this week, Sessions was pressured into removing himself from oversight of any FBI investigations into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia.

Bolstering the claims are the remarkably thin prosecution cases brought by Sessions against some of those Democrats he indicted, which are detailed across thousands of pages of archived court filings that were reviewed by the Guardian.

Sessions had no direct evidence that Mims had committed a crime. The recycling plant was never even built. “I’ve never seen such a flimsy, weak case as this against anybody,” Mims’s attorney said in court.

Still, Sessions’s office, which boasted a 95% conviction rate, persuaded a jury to find Mims guilty. Mims, a 60-year-old lay preacher, sobbed through his trial. He cried when he was convicted, then cried again when he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. “I will go to my grave proclaiming my innocence,” Mims told Judge Charles Butler.

A few years later, Sessions ran to be Alabama attorney general. His old friend Outlaw, who was also a wealthy businessman, personally donated $25,000 to Sessions’s campaign. It was more than any other contributor gave.

‘He is an ideologue’

Sessions began the 1980s on the front lines of Mobile’s partisan warfare.

Having left his job as an assistant US attorney following the election of Jimmy Carter as US president, Sessions worked on Ronald Reagan’s triumphant 1980 White House bid in Alabama and campaigned to elect fellow Republicans to local offices that were then still dominated by conservative Democrats.

After one such contest ended in narrow defeat for a Republican nominee, Sessions was incandescent. The 34-year-old disputed the result in the county courts and forcefully demanded a full recount.

During one hearing, Sessions so furiously accused the Democrats of wrongdoing that the judge ruled him “out of order” three times. The Republicans took the election challenge all the way to the Alabama supreme court before finally admitting defeat.

It was a declaration of intent.

“He is an ideologue,” said Ed Massey, a Mobile attorney who has known Sessions since the 1970s. “His attitude was, ‘I’ve got a job to do, and this is what I think my job is, and I’m going to do it with guns blazing’.”

A few months later, Sessions was announced as Reagan’s choice to fill the top job in the federal prosecutor’s office in Mobile. Once installed, he quickly got to work on reshaping the agenda of this little outpost of the US justice department.

In September 1982, Bob Gulledge, a first-term Democratic state senator, was preparing to defend his seat when Sessions indicted him for alleged land fraud conspiracy. Gulledge and an associate had profited from the sale of a tract of land that had been bought with a mortgage from a government-backed lender where the associate was also an executive.

“What are we doing here? Where’s the crime?” Gulledge’s exasperated attorney asked the court at trial, after Sessions gave an extravagant 90-minute opening statement.

The attorney, Barry Hess, said Gulledge was no different from other borrowers except he “happened to be in the state senate, and happened to be running for re-election” soon:

“The prosecutor is like a dog with a bone,” said Hess. “It’s a bone with no meat on it, but he keeps playing with it, burying it. There just ain’t any meat on it.”

A mistrial was declared after jurors could not reach a verdict. But by then, Gulledge had lost his party primary contest, and was out of his re-election race altogether. He did not respond to requests for comment.

As the next election season approached in late 1984, Sessions struck again. The city commissioner, Gary Greenough, was sentenced to 10 years for allegedly stealing a cut of the profits from Mobile’s municipal auditorium, a city-run entertainment venue that hosted top-tier shows such as the Jacksons, Santana, and Kool and the Gang.

Greenough, who had, with Lambert Mims, pushed through municipal contracting reforms that left Sessions allies out of pocket, always maintained his innocence.

And a review of the case shows that the evidence against him was far from clear-cut. His conviction rested on the testimony of two auditorium managers, who were clearly guilty of embezzlement themselves, and made plea deals with Sessions in return for their cooperation in prosecuting Greenough.

In the paperwork that he submitted earlier this year to the US Senate judiciary committee for his confirmation hearings, Sessions named the Greenough case as one of the 10 most significant of his career.

“It was about eliminating opposition,” said Danny Mims, one of Mims’s sons. “The reason they targeted my father was that he was really good at it.”

Rejection for a federal judgeship

The fight was not only partisan but generational. Members of a so-called “Old Establishment” in Mobile politics were increasingly seeing their jobs, and patronage for their corporate backers, threatened by a new breed of upstarts. With Sessions as its spearhead, the establishment fought back.

Rumors began flying around Mobile’s corridors of power and newspaper gossip columns about who might be next in line for indictment. The atmosphere grew increasingly febrile.

“They would do it just to shake the branches,” said one prominent Mobile attorney from the time, who did not want to be identified being critical of the US attorney general because he still practices law. “The FBI would put people through these vague, threatening interviews, trying to get them to say things about other people.”

The inquiry into Greenough was led by Jack Brennan, a senior FBI agent in Mobile who was close to Sessions. Distinctive for his puffy red face and thinning hair, Brennan would reappear several times in Sessions’s cases against local Democrats. Reached by email, he did not respond to questions.

At 7am on 25 November 1985, Brennan and two other investigators paid a visit to the home of Gurney Owens, Mobile County’s top waste disposal official. Owens was in deep trouble.

He had been caught on tape soliciting a bribe from a local businessman, who had been trying to secure a landfill contract. Unknown to Owens, the businessman, Gerald Godwin, had been wearing a wire for the FBI and Sessions when the pair chatted over a breakfast of eggs, bacon and coffee at the Quality Inn.

Now the agents in his living room were telling Owens they could help him to help himself. He was facing a long prison sentence, they said, but it could be cut down to two years if he cooperated with what they and Sessions wanted.

“The US attorney’s office and the FBI presented to Mr Owens a hitlist of approximately 20 people that they wanted him to snare,” Owens’s attorney, Jim Atchison, said in a statement filed to court. “It is interesting to note that every single person on the list is either a well-known Democrat or active in the Democratic party.”

The county waste official said he was “dumbfounded” by what was being asked of him. “They told me that they wanted me to wear a concealed radio transmitter and go out and talk to a number of people and see if I could involve them in something improper or illegal,” Owens said in his own statement.

Sessions flatly denied the existence of a hit list, later telling US senators that Owens’s allegation was “one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in my practice of law”. A justice department review agreed that the claim of a list was “utterly without foundation”.

But William Hinshaw, the FBI official who took over the Mobile office in 1986, said in an interview that it was feasible. “It is a technique that is used,” he said, noting that a justice department official should sign off on such a target list.

Owens declined to take the deal. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

“Sessions would get really, really mad at my dad because my dad refused to roll over,” recalled Owens’s son Gerry, who said he once watched an enraged Sessions berate his father in a courthouse corridor. “He’d be sitting there calm as can be, and would then explode like a firecracker.”

In any case, Owens had already helped Sessions and the FBI with one of their targets. On the secret recordings, Owens was heard claiming he had been ordered to collect the bribe by Douglas Wicks, a Democratic county commissioner, who had voting power on who should win the contract.

Wicks insisted that this was merely a cover story that Owens told to make himself look better while requesting money he would actually keep himself. Sessions did not initially indict Wicks for involvement in the alleged bribery. But then came Sessions’s disastrous visit to Washington DC.

Still only 39 years old, Sessions was nominated by Reagan for another promotion – as a federal judge for Alabama’s southern district.

Democrats in the Senate had other ideas. Members of the Senate judiciary committee voted to reject Sessions, after receiving allegations of racism toward African Americans. It was only the second time in 50 years that a nominee had been denied a federal judgeship.

Wicks, who had been the first black person elected to the Mobile County commission, had a walk-on role in the melodrama. During the Senate hearings, future vice-president Joe Biden asked Sessions if it was true that he called Wicks a “nigger” during a break in a court hearing in November 1981.

Sessions denied using the racist term but the allegation, coupled with other first-hand accounts of Session’s use of racially insensitive language, went some way to killing his nomination.

A few months later, his judgeship prospects in tatters, Sessions indicted Wicks after all. The indictment for extortion was publicly unveiled by Sessions two days after the Senate confirmed an attorney to take the judgeship he had been denied.

“Sessions decided to go after me because he didn’t get the judgeship,” Wicks said, echoing remarks he made immediately after being indicted.

Sessions accused Wicks of demanding a bribe from the owner of a pumping firm in return for a permit. Owens said so, too. But the businessman testified that he voluntarily gave Wicks a campaign contribution after the permit had been given. “I don’t feel that I was extorted,” he said.

There was also no proof offered that Wicks had received the bribes that Owens was recorded asking for. Brennan, the FBI agent, fed Godwin wads of marked $20 bills to make the bribes, and then followed Wicks around Mobile trying to catch him spending them at stores and restaurants. But none of the $20s were recovered.

The lack of any smoking gun might have seen Wicks headed for an acquittal. But something extraordinary happened in the days before his trial.

On 4 March 1987, Wicks and a friend were looking around vacant houses that had recently been bought by the city of Mobile. The structures were to be sold and moved elsewhere to make way for new construction. Wicks and his friend stopped at one house with a set of anti-burglar bars on the ground outside. They picked up the bars and threw them in their truck to sell as scrap metal.

But a man appeared and told them that he was in the process of buying the house. “Where are you going with my stuff?” asked the man. Wicks, who thought he recognized the man, apologized. “We didn’t know anybody owned this place,” Wicks said. They returned the bars to where they had been found, and left.

Wicks later realized that the man who had confronted them was Brennan, the FBI agent and friend of Sessions, who had been surveilling Wicks for months for the corruption case. Wicks was charged with theft. A story about the case ran on the front page of the Mobile Register under the headline “Wicks charged with felony”. Days later, Wicks’s trial for extortion began.

“It was unfair, so unfair,” said Irmatean Watson, a Democratic city councilwoman at the time. “It was all political. Douglas didn’t do anything wrong.”

Hinshaw, then the FBI field office chief, said in an interview that Sessions had personally approved the arrest of Wicks for the theft and brushed aside any concerns about “political correctness” or awkward timing.

He strenuously denied that the theft charge was cooked up to tarnish Wicks’s name before his trial. Agent Brennan insisted that he really was buying the house, and that another man named as the purchaser in the county records was acting on his behalf.

But Wicks and his attorney, Billy Kimbrough, claimed the FBI had been watching and waiting for any act by Wicks that they could make look like criminal activity. The following month the charges relating to the burglar bars were dismissed. By then, Wicks had been found guilty in the corruption trial and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

‘Mims was not a crook’

It was the prosecution of Mims, however, that astonished even hardened Mobile political operatives. At the center of the case, wearing a wire once again, was Gerald Godwin, the same businessman who helped Sessions nail Owens and Wicks.

Godwin alleged that he had been pressured to give 40% of his company to a friend of Mims’s if he wanted Mims to award him the contract to develop the recycling plant.

There was no evidence presented of such extortion, let alone Mims’s knowledge of it, let alone his involvement in it. Godwin claimed to have been threatened on 30 September, yet Mims had already signed a city resolution agreeing to the plant almost a week before that. The negotiations collapsed and the plant was never built.

And yet – four years after Mims had stepped down from politics, and shortly after he reappeared with his campaign for mayor – Sessions proceeded with criminal charges against him.

“Mims was not a crook. He would never have knowingly done anything like what they claimed,” his attorney, Thomas Haas, said in a recent interview. “These people were politically motivated.”

After pleading not guilty, Mims told reporters that he was “a victim of people who have used the system to try to destroy me politically” and that the indictment had been timed “to affect the outcome of the election”.

The authorities had even sent an FBI agent into Mims’s office, posing as an executive from a mortgage lender, and tried to make Mims reveal illegal cronyism by saying on tape that his friend would definitely be awarded the contract. But Mims was only recorded saying platitudes such as: “Naturally, I’d rather see local people get it rather than to bring in somebody from out of state.”

So underwhelming was the evidence when played in court that the Mobile Register’s front page headline the following day was: “Recording reveals no wrongdoing”.

Attempting to have the case thrown out, Haas called it “a farce” and a “cruel joke”. In his closing argument, he told jurors: “You have wasted 10 weeks of your life. There is no evidence of any criminal activity by Mr Mims. You’ve heard the evidence. That’s all there is, folks. The fat lady has sung.”

After more than 20 hours of deliberations, however, the jury found Mims guilty.

Asked following the trial whether he had brought the prosecution to kill Mims’s political career, Sessions said nothing could be further from the truth. “These cases are based on the law and the facts – and not on any other consideration,” he said.