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Elections grant money used to buy big-screen TVs, home projectors, documents show

Toni Johnson recently stepped down as Hinds Co. Election Commission chair after allegations of...
Toni Johnson recently stepped down as Hinds Co. Election Commission chair after allegations of misspending money were brought up by District 2 Supervisor David Archie.(WLBT)
Published: Jul. 26, 2021 at 4:04 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Days after the Hinds County Election Commission voted to remove Commissioner Toni Johnson as chair, more details are coming to light on how election funds were spent.

Friday, the commission held a special meeting to oust Johnson as commission chair, after District 2 Supervisor David Archie questioned several expenses she has signed off on, including two $4,200 line items for training luncheons commissioners don’t remember attending.

A further review of expenses incurred under Johnson’s leadership shows that thousands of dollars in grant and election funds were also spent to purchase writing pens, food for poll workers, home projection systems, big-screen TVs, subwoofers and other home appliances.

Last year, the commission received a $1.5 million grant from the non-profit Center for Tech and Civic Life in September.

According to the Center’s website, awards can be used to expand voter education and outreach, recruit poll workers, provide training, expand efforts to support early in-person voting and vote by mail and ensure safe and efficient Election Day administration in light of COVID-19.

County documents show that $5,398 was spent to purchase two 85-inch Smart TVs, while $738 went to two home or office projectors, $35,900 went to buy 10,000 ink pens to give voters on Election Day and $62,000 was spent to provide breakfast and lunch for approximately 612 poll workers on Election Day.

Broken down, that $62,000 comes to $101 per person. As for the ink pens, the amount spent on the Election Day giveaway is about $12,000 more than the county’s per capita income of $23,734.

Meanwhile, the firm brought on to provide those meals, Innovative Concepts 50, was formed only two days before the commission issued a requisition for the Election Day food.

According to the Mississippi Secretary of State’s website, the LLC was formed on Oct. 7, 2020. Johnson requisitioned food for poll workers on October 9, county records show. We have attempted to contact the firm but have gotten a response.

The televisions listed in the requisition requests were two 85-inch Samsung Smart TVs with subwoofers, which cost $2,699 a piece, and two ViewSonic 3800 Lumens SVGA High Brightness projectors for home and office, which cost $369.20 a piece. The devices were requisitioned by Johnson on October 7.

Hinds County Election Commission spent grant money on televisions and other home appliances.
Hinds County Election Commission spent grant money on televisions and other home appliances.(WLBT)

District 5 Commissioner Shirley Varnado said she couldn’t comment on expenses made prior to her joining the board in January. However, she said the items mentioned by WLBT did not appear to be in the election commission’s inventory.

“I did not see some of the things you named on the inventory sheet,” she said. She did say that two 70-inch Samsung flat-screens were listed in the inventory. However, those items did not fit the description of the televisions listed in the requisition form.

The commission also spent nearly $1,260 to purchase a new GE refrigerator and countertop microwave. Varnado said she did have a refrigerator in inventory but its serial number did not match the one listed. County officials are unsure where the microwave is.

It was unclear who signed off on that requisition. It was not in the files viewed by WLBT.

Commissioners voted to remove Johnson as commission chair last week. The vote came a day after Archie attended a special called meeting of the commission and brought up several expenditures signed off on by Johnson.

Among expenditures, Archie asked about two training luncheons the commission paid $8,400 for, as well as two cleaning bills which cost another $9,400. He also brought up the nearly $3,700 that the commission had spent to mow grass at the 701 Commerce St. facility.

Archie also said the commission paid New Beginnings, of Crystal Springs, a little more than $8,400 for two training luncheons this spring. When asked, no commission members could remember attending those meetings.

Meanwhile, Johnson told Archie at the meeting that payments to New Beginnings were likely for multiple training sessions and that the $4,200 to New Beginnings was a lump sum to cover all costs.

She says that Archie’s questions are politically motivated. Johnson ran for District 2 Supervisor in 2019. She also recently notified Malcolm Johnson, Archie’s assistant, of her intent to sue him for making untrue comments about her personal life on his radio show.

Johnson’s radio show has since been cancelled, according to Toni Johnson’s attorney, Warren Martin.

Martin added that if Archie was truly concerned about commission spending, he would have reached out to them in private or through certified mail.

“Mr. Archie had called a press conference during a duly noted election commission meeting,” he said, referring to the supervisor’s actions last week. “He invited the media there and did a ‘gotcha’ moment with the election commission, but he never produced the documents to the commissioners ahead of the meeting.

“It’s a smoke and mirrors trick - it’s a distraction,” Martin said.

Archie is currently facing removal as vice president of the board of supervisors, in part, because of his behavior at board meetings. A special meeting has been called for 9 a.m. Wednesday where his removal as vice president will again be discussed.

A purchase requisition for February shows that the $4,216 was for new commissioner training luncheons on February 8 and February 18, 2021. The requisition further states that 20 people each would be attending those meetings and that costs would cover labor, delivery and condiments.

Former Commission Chair Toni Johnson signed a requisition form for a $4,200 training luncheon,...
Former Commission Chair Toni Johnson signed a requisition form for a $4,200 training luncheon, which no commissioner remembers attending.(WLBT)

Varnado, one of the commission’s new members, said she did not attend a luncheon on either of the dates listed in the requisition form.

“I don’t remember having any training in February. We had been asking about training and they kept talking about how we were goin to have training when we went to ECAM, which is the Election Commissioners Association of Mississippi, which is the annual annual training required by law for election commissioners,” she said. “We didn’t go to that training until the end of June.”

According to Archie, both payments were made to New Beginnings. Google searches show that New Beginnings, 109 E. Georgetown St., in Crystal Springs, is beauty and cosmetics shop. When contacted, a person answering the phone said the owners were not in and she would take a message.

Johnson said she could not provide any additional information on the purchases or the vendors. She said vendors are chosen by the county’s purchasing department and that all expenditures also have to be signed off on by the board of supervisors.

She said Archie voted to approve all of the line items that he is now questioning.

As for the televisions not being in inventory, Johnson said they were delivered to the commission headquarters prior to commissioners having access to the building. The TVs and projectors were approved for payment in November, county records indicate.

“We did not take possession of 701 Commerce until December 2020,” she said. “However, items were being delivered there before that, in October or September as soon as we got the grant.”

The commission has requested that other items, including the refrigerator and microwave, to be tagged by the county’s inventory department, she added.

Jermal Clark, who took over as commission chair, said additional details will be provided at a special meeting slated for 10 a.m., August 5.

We have reached out to the Center for Tech and Civic Life and are waiting to hear back.

Other major expenses are listed below:

  • $35,900 - comfort grip pens (CTCL grant)
  • $40,770 - thermal scanners with temperature checks (CTCL grant)
  • $28,650 - posters, bulletins (CTCL grant)
  • $62,000 - Election Day food for poll workers (CTCL grant)
  • $27,892 - Voter education cards, Voter ID rules, Election Day voting info., ballots for 30 precincts (CTCL)
  • $899.97 - GE 19-cubic-foot refrigerator
  • $299.99 - Countertop microwave
  • $7,256 - Grass cutting at 701 Commerce St. facility (county general fund)
  • $9,562 - Building cleaning and COVID-19 spraying ( county general fund)

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