Former Moss Point mayor sentenced to federal prison for wire fraud
GULFPORT, Miss. (WLOX) - The former mayor of Moss Point will spend the next 30 months in federal prison after being sentenced Thursday morning.
Once that time is served, Mario King will also have three years of supervised release. He has 60 days to turn himself in. He and his wife Natasha each pleaded guilty earlier this year to one federal count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
Natasha King was sentenced Thursday to probation, which was the recommendation of prosecutors. Mario King was ordered to pay $8,000 in fines, and Natasha was ordered to pay $5,500. The couple are jointly ordered to pay $6,937 in restitution.
Carrying his young son, Mario and Natasha walked into the federal courthouse Thursday to hear their sentences. The couple appeared in front of District Court Judge Sul Ozerden.
The Kings were arrested last year and initially charged with 13 counts of aiding and abetting wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government through wire fraud. Earlier this year, the couple negotiated a plea deal allowing them to admit to just one count of wire fraud.
An audible gasp of relief could be heard from the King family as Natasha’s sentence was announced, with tears of gratitude falling from the eyes of some as they realized she wouldn’t be going to prison.
After they were sentenced, both Mario and Natasha were able to address the court.
“First, I am guilty. I would like to apologize to the City of Moss Point and for using bad judgment… I completely understand and take full responsibility for my actions,” Mario King said. “I am sorry for embarrassing my family… My intentions were good but I still was wrong… I would also like to apologize to my wife for dragging her through this the last 12 months.”
Natasha King addressed the court, expressing concern for her children.
“I have worked [as a licensed social worker] with traumatized children. I don’t want my children to be traumatized after watching their parents go through this,” she said, adding that she would also like to apologize to the citizens of Moss Point.
Natasha’s attorney, Cameron McCormick, also addressed the court after the sentencing.
“Natasha King is a mother, a wife. But for her marriage to [Mario King], she wouldn’t be here today. She followed [Mario] into the walls of this courtroom today.”
Afterward, Mario and Natasha – along with their children and loved ones – walked out of the court and embraced outside.
Standing on the steps of the courthouse after being sentenced, King held an impromptu press conference, saying he is okay with the outcome, especially since his wife would not be serving jailtime.
“Today was a day where, partially, I’m happy. I do have some time to serve, but I think when people make mistakes, you should accept responsibilities for those mistakes. You should be a man,” he said.
He smiled as he told reporters that he would be back to the Coast one day in some capacity and to be on the lookout for his book once he’s released from prison.
He also believes Judge Ozerden treated him fairly.
“I had so much fear of this building and this system because I’m Black. I was scared. I was so scared,” he said. “But today, [Judge Ozerden] showed me that it’s not about that. He showed me about accepting responsibility, whether I believe it’s right or wrong. He did what was in the best interests of, not just me and my wife, but our children.”
Mario and Natasha’s young children were in the courtroom throughout the four-hour hearing Thursday.
“I wanted my kids there because I wanted them to see the system. One, because they are Black boys and girls, but in addition to that, so they’ll know not to make dumb decisions,” said Mario after the hearing.
Although Mario and Natasha signed a plea agreement in February, prosecutors filed a late notice addendum Wednesday afternoon that contained more than 200 pages of evidence accusing the couple of committing mortgage fraud in Texas, where the Kings now reside.
Mario and Natasha began pre-sentencing probation guidelines when they announced their intent to plead guilty in February. Those guidelines included full financial disclosures, as well as notifying the probation officer of their residence.
In 2020, Natasha moved to Texas with the couple’s three children. Not long after, Mario followed, staying in the one-bedroom apartment with them. Before moving, Mario advised the probation officer that he would be going and had his probation moved to a Texas office. However, prosecutors say the couple failed to tell the probation officer that they were planning on a buying a house. It’s a financial decision that the government said would have a direct effect on the restitution and fine amounts that the Kings were ordered to pay in their agreement.
While purchasing the house, documents were submitted to the mortgage company showing that Mario was gainfully employed at Remedy Behavior and Mental Health, LLC, a company started by the Kings in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area.
Judge Ozerden likened the Texas-based LLC to the one that landed the Kings in hot water in the first place, saying the intent was very similar: The Kings started an LLC then used it as a means to defraud someone for personal gain. In Texas, the victim was the mortgage company. In Moss Point, it was the taxpayers and residents who donated to the Kings’ fundraiser through their Rejuvenation LLC.
Judge Ozerden overruled the defense’s objections to the evidence, saying the Kings showed a loss of responsibility and had sophisticated means when they engaged in their acts.
Mario’s attorney Calvin Taylor admitted that his client had some oversight when notifying the probation officer, but said there was no intent to lie or commit fraud. Instead, he questioned how it affected the outcome of the probationary terms.
“It’s an oversight by people who were overwhelmed, two people who were scared they were going to prison and scared that their three kids could lose their mom and dad,” said Taylor. “There’s nothing wrong with having hope and having a future after being convicted. [Mario] had to prepare for life as a convicted felon and he made an oversight. At the time, there were negotiations happening to drop Natasha’s charge to a misdemeanor or send it back to the state court. Her being convicted was a roadblock. They were just trying to navigate week-by-week what their life was going to look like.”
Despite the defense’s objections, the judge overruled the objections, siding with prosecutors and saying the Kings committed their acts with sophisticated means and intent.
It all could have been avoided had the couple followed the terms of their pre-trial sentencing guidelines, said the judge.
“Conduct after entering a guilty plea is why they are facing additional time… You used the goodwill and trust of fellow citizens to further your lifestyle,” said Ozerden.
Mario King was elected in 2017 as the mayor of Moss Point. In February 2021, he resigned after pleading guilty to one count of wire fraud.
The indictment accused Mario and Natasha of soliciting funds for the benefit gala but not using that money for its intended purpose, which was to support a mental health program for the Moss Point School District. Instead, prosecutors said the Kings used the money to pay various personal expenses, including the down payment on a new car, cash withdrawals, and paying credit card charges that were used to purchase a designer dog breed.
One of the key pieces of evidence presented by prosecutors was the the March 4, 2019, appearance by the Kings on WLOX’s 4 O’clock Show where they promoted the Mayor’s Gala, which was held on March 23, 2019.
When he entered his guilty plea earlier this year, the judge asked Mario: “Is that, in fact, what happened in this case, Mr. King?”
King’s reply was, “Yes, sir.”
The 14-count indictment was filed on April 28, 2020, alleging that Mario and Natasha solicited funds beginning in 2018 from a benefit gala but did not use that money for its intended purpose, which was to support a mental health program for Moss Point School District.
The benefit gala was being hosted by the Kings’ personal business, Rejuvenate LLC, which they formed together in April 2018. Authorities allege in the indictment that the business’ bank account had no activity on it other than monthly statements until December 2018, when the couple announced plans for the benefit gala.
The invitation to the event, which was to be held on March 23, 2019, stated that the “gala honors and supports organizations that are making a difference for the mental health community. Proceeds support the efforts of mental health in the City of Moss Point with a focus on the Moss Point School District, converting spaces into a therapeutic and innovative learning environment.”
Just weeks after the gala took place on April 8, 2019, Natasha King allegedly used a business credit card from Rejuvenate to make a $2,000 down payment on a Cadillac XTC. The indictment says she returned that vehicle 12 days later and soon after received a refund for the down payment, which she deposited into the couple’s personal checking account.
On April 16, 2019, the Kings reportedly paid off two credit cards - one in the amount of $270 and the other for $475 - which were used to purchase a Biewer terrier in December 2018. The money for those credit card payments was also was taken from gala funds deposited in the Rejuvenate bank account, states the indictment.
On May 1, 2019, Natasha reportedly withdrew $1,000 from the Rejuvenate business account that contained the proceeds from the gala. That same day, the indictment says she took another $2,700 in cash from the couple’s joint checking account, which included $2,000 that was raised at the gala.
On May 12, 2019, the indictment said Natasha purchased a Volvo, paying $3,700 down on it. Authorities say $3,000 of that money was from the gala’s proceeds.
Prior to the gala, the couple appeared together on WLOX television and described the event, saying that funds from the gala would be used to create safe spaces for mental health counseling in the city’s school district.
However, state and federal agencies allege that the Kings used some of the money to pay for the gala and did not give the remaining proceeds to the school district.
Some of the funds were used to pay for the cost of the Gala, but the remaining proceeds did not go to the Moss Point School District, said authorities.
Instead, it is alleged that the couple spent the money on various personal expenses, including the down payment on a new car, cash withdrawals, and paying personal credit card charges.
Copyright 2021 WLOX. All rights reserved.