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PANDEMIC PROFITS: Here’s how Hinds Co. spent more than $1.8 million in election grant funding

Published: Aug. 12, 2021 at 5:53 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Weeks into WLBT’s investigation into election commission spending, more details are coming to light on how Hinds County spent more than $1.8 million in grant money designed to keep voters safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last fall, the county election commission received a $1.5 million grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life to ensure voter safety during the pandemic. (The county later received another $200,000 from CTCL, as well as additional grant money, which was all put in one account.)

A review of county documents, though, show the funds were used for everything from purchasing big-screen TVs with sub-woofers to home and office projectors.

Additionally, hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts were awarded to firms for work that appeared to be outside their scopes of service, while other contractors brought on appeared to have ties with county officials.

Meanwhile, it is unclear who was responsible for awarding the contracts.

District 2 Election Commissioner Toni Johnson, who touts her efforts to obtain $1.9 million in election grant funding for the county on her social media page, says contractors were chosen by the county administrator and purchasing department.

Toni Johnson's social media page lists securing a $1.9 million grant for safe elections as one...
Toni Johnson's social media page lists securing a $1.9 million grant for safe elections as one of her accomplishments on the Election Commission.(Special to WLBT)

Her signature is found on many of the invoices and requisition forms for the companies that were hired.

“Our position was to come up with a list of expenditures based on what we needed for the elections, instruct the quotes to be sent to myself or purchasing, turn it over to the county administrator, and for the board to blanket approve them,” she said following a fight with supervisors over grant spending last year. “Those were my instructions, so that’s what we were doing.”

Johnson, through her attorney, declined multiple requests for an interview for this story.

District 1 Supervisor Robert Graham, who signed off on contracts as board president, said all the vendors had been vetted by the board attorney and commission by the time they made it to the supervisors’ to be approved.

“I did not have anything to do with the vetting. I did not recommend, did not qualify (and) did not certify any of those particular companies or vendors for that particular grant,” he said Wednesday.

On November 2, Board Attorney Tony Gaylor provided the board with a list of 13 approved vendors for the CTCL grant. The vendors were paid later that month, according to county claim dockets.

Gaylor declined multiple requests to discuss the procurement process, saying the county had already issued a statement.

That statement was provided by Linda Smith, senior executive assistant to County Administrator Kenneth Wayne Jones.

“To our knowledge, none of the vendors approved by Hinds County to implement the grant from the CTCL Foundation maintained an employment relationship with Hinds County. All of the vendors, expenditures, and categories of expenditures were approved by the grantor, CTCL Foundation,” she wrote. “CTCL also approved the final report prepared by Hinds County which documented all of the expenditures associated with the grant to Hinds County.”

Jones did not return our call for comment.

It was unknown how much election commissioners knew about the spending.

Minutes obtained from 2020 commission meetings make no mention of the CTCL grant, despite the grant being awarded to the commission in September.

However, in June of this year, the commission voted to changed its vendor selection and approval process, requiring that at least three commissioners sign all requisitions for purchases before submitting those requisitions to the purchasing department.

And last month, after allegations of misspending arose, commissioners voted 4-0 to remove Johnson as chair.

Officials with the Center for Tech and Civic Life declined multiple requests for comment.

In its award letter to the county, it said that funds had to be spent in accordance with CTCL rules, U.S. tax laws, and “the laws and regulations of your state and jurisdiction.”

CTCL is a nonprofit that has provided millions of dollars in grant money to local governments to help make elections safe and secure in the wake of COVID.

The nonprofit is funded by Google, Facebook, Rock the Vote, the Knight Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Voting Information Project, and other groups.

Funds from the COVID-19 Response Grant Program could be used for protecting Election Day administrators, expanding voter education and outreach, recruiting and training poll workers and supporting in-person voting and vote by mail efforts, according to the group’s website.

Thirty-four counties in Mississippi received CTCL grants for the 2020 election, including Madison County, which received a $325,000 award.

“We initially applied for funds to hire more (office workers) for the presidential election,” Madison County Circuit Clerk Anita Wray said. The workers were needed to help handle the growing number of absentee ballots brought about by COVID.

“I was floored with how much (money) we received,” she said.

With the funds left over, she said her office purchased a high-speed scanner to scan absentee ballots and to update the poll books used to verify voter information at the precincts.

Wray said the scanner was needed because the county received over 10,000 absentee ballots during the presidential election. As for the poll books, she said the last time they had been updated was in 2013 or 2014.

Wray added that the board of supervisors did not have to sign off on the spending because her office applied for the grant.

Hinds County initially received $1.5 million in funds – an amount that was later increased to $1.7 million. Hinds also received election grant monies from the Schwarzenegger Institute.

Along with voter outreach, funds in Hinds County were used to purchase home appliances, air purifiers, writing pens, office furnishings and to pay for catering.

Money also went to hire a beauty supply shop to do COVID-19 cleaning and to a photography studio and lawn care company to make deliveries on Election Day.

County documents show that $5,398 was spent to purchase two 85-inch Samsung Smart TVs with sub-woofer soundbars, $738 went to buy home and office projectors and $35,900 went to buy 10,000 ink pens that were given to voters at the polls.

Don Gilbert Photography received a $35,000 contract, of which just $10,000 went to photography services. The remaining was to cover costs for delivering “food, t-shirts, ballots, poll numbers, mask(s), hand sanitizer and other materials for (a) safe and secure election,” records show.

The Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office lists Don Gilbert as the company’s registered agent. Gilbert is the husband of Sonja Gilbert, a special projects coordinator for Supervisor Robert Graham.

Don Gilbert could not be reached for comment, despite repeated calls.

Graham confirmed Don and Sonja Gilbert were related, and that she was a county employee. However, he said the contracts were reviewed by the board attorney and there was no conflict of interest.

“They [the proposed vendors] were only submitted to the board of supervisors after they were vetted. The list was vetted by the board attorney. It was not vetted by the board of supervisors,” he said.

In a November 2 letter, board attorney Tony Gaylor asked supervisors to approve a list of 13 contractors to provide services pursuant to the CTCL grant.

Don Gilbert Photography, listed as Don Gilbert Photo, was among them.

Another company, Innovative Concepts 50 LLC, also was on Gaylor’s list. That company received more than $149,000 in contracts, including a $62,000 deal to provide meals to poll workers on Election Day.

The company, though, was formed on October 7, 2020, according to secretary of state records, two days before Johnson signed the requisition request leading to the firm’s hire.

Its registered agent is listed as Undare Kidd.

Kidd was the third person to sign District 2 Commissioner Toni Johnson’s petition to run for office.

Undare Kidd, also spelled Undrae, was one of the first people to sign Johnson's petition to run...
Undare Kidd, also spelled Undrae, was one of the first people to sign Johnson's petition to run for office. A company associated with Kidd received tens of thousands of dollars in CTCL contracts.(WLBT)

Innovative Concepts also received payments of $38,000 and $45,000 to distribute voter education materials in Districts 4 and 5.

The Jackson-based firm is listed as a “social advocacy organization” on the secretary of state’s website.

We reached out to Kidd to ask for details on the contracts and he had little to say. “I’m going to let the board of supervisors do that. I don’t really have no comment.”

Other spending included $24,000 with McField’s Lawn Care Service, $22,000 and $25,000 with Illuminated Enterprises, $14,999 and $23,999 with Hubbard Vacuum Sale and Service, $120,000 with New Beginnings LLC, and $172,000 with Apogee Group II.

Illuminated, a West Palm Beach, Fla. company, was hired to organize a “Mask Up and Show Up” campaign to get people to the polls. Records show $11,000 went to producing the program and another $11,000 went to running it. An additional $25,000 went toward “additional operational management and supplies” for the county’s campaign for safe and secure elections.

According to a letter sent to the board, the event was slated to run on Nov. 1 and 2, 2020.

According to the Buzz File business database, the Florida-based company “primarily operates in the health and dietetic food stores business/industry within the food stores sector” generates less than $45,000 a year and employs two people at a single location.

The company’s website provides few additional details but alludes to the fact that the firm has more than the two employees listed at Buzz File.

“We, the team at IE are a group of professionals. Our degrees and expertise include but are not limited to Communication Sciences, Education, Sales, Design, Marketing, Development, and Management,” Illuminated’s website states.

As for what the company does, the website states “we... own, manage and consult a network of businesses and operations fashioned to provide life-enhancing goods and services.”

McField’s Lawn Care Service, a lawn care company out of Jackson, received a $24,000 contract for delivery and installation services.

The contract including picking up and delivering cones to “different voting precinct(s)” on Election Day and returning the items to the Election Commission’s warehouse afterward. The agreement also included picking up, delivering, and installing hand sanitizer units and facial temperature scanners at various precincts.

The contract did not show how many precincts the firm delivered to. McField’s also received several two $3,600 bids to provide pressure washing, grass mowing, and lawn care service at the Election Commission headquarters, at 701 E. Commerce Street.

We contacted Fulton McField, who said he was too busy at the time to comment. We called him again later, and he could not be reached.

New Beginnings received $58,000 to clean the election commission headquarters and circuit clerk’s office from October 15 to November 20, 2020. It received another $60,000 to provide COVID cleaning at all District 3 polling locations, the circuit clerk’s office, and election commission headquarters from the runoff elections through December 31.

It was not known how many polling locations were in District 3. There are 108 precincts across Hinds County.

New Beginnings also received $8,400 in county taxpayer dollars to provide training luncheons for new commissioners. However, no commissioners remembered attending any training luncheons.

A review of county documents further confuses the training luncheon issue. Records from District 3 Supervisor David Archie show the commission paid New Beginnings $4,200 on March 17 and February 5, 2021, to provide the meals. However, we could only find one purchase requisition for $4,216.14, for New Beginnings to provide luncheons on Feb. 8 and 18.

Commissioners have doubled down on the fact that they have not attended any training sessions outside of the Election Commissioners Association of Mississippi conference held earlier this year.

Luncheons aside, state records indicate New Beginnings is neither a cleaning nor catering company. Instead, the secretary of state lists the firm as a cosmetics supply shop.

New Beginnings’ registered agent, Sudie Jones-Teague, did not return multiple phone calls.

County documents showed that checks were paid to New Beginnings, 109 E. Georgetown St. in Crystal Springs. We visited that location and discovered that it is, in fact, a beauty supply shop. Teague-Jones was not at the store when we arrived.

New Beginnings was awarded contracts for catering and cleaning, despite it being listed as a...
New Beginnings was awarded contracts for catering and cleaning, despite it being listed as a cosmetics supply company by the Secretary of State.(WLBT)

District 4 Commissioner Yvonne Horton could not comment previously on whether New Beginnings had the ability to offer cleaning services. However, she said the firm had a restaurant in Bolton and could provide food. “I only know that they do provide food. And the food’s good,” she said. “That’s the only thing I can, you know, refer to about.”

State records indicate that Jones-Teague and Stephen Teague share a home address of 150 Waywood Way, Jackson. Stephen Teague is the registered agent for S&S Burgers-N-Blues in Bolton, according to the secretary of state.

Another company, Clinton-based Apogee Group II, received nearly $180,000 for various election-related services, despite the secretary of state listing the company’s nature of business as “site preparation contractors” and “motion picture and video production.”

Contracts included $39,500 to distribute literature to some 60,000 voters in District 2, $31,000 to distribute voter materials in District 3 prior to the runoff there, and $31,000 to conduct a “post-election performance audit” and logistics on voting machines for all five county districts.

The company also received a $7,105 contract to do a “post-election audit on electronic poll books and express votes,” according to county paperwork.

It was unclear what was included in the performance audit, the poll book audits, or logistics work.

Jermal Clark, the chair of the election commission could not be reached for comment.

We called Cedric Cornelius, Apogee’s registered agent, and the call was disconnected. WLBT Investigative Reporter C.J. LeMaster went to the home listed at Cornelius’ address and no one answered the door.

Thousands of dollars were spent on other items as well, many of which election commissioners say are not in their inventory. Commissioners tell us they have been unable to locate the Samsung televisions and home/office projectors. They also have not been able to find the 13 air purifiers purchased to use at voting precincts.

The air purifiers were acquired from Ridgeland-based Hubbard Vacuum Sale and Service for nearly $38,000. The devices were purchased at the behest of Supervisor Archie, who requested a quote from the company and also invited representatives from the firm to speak at a board meeting.

Archie said little about that contract. “I can only say to you that there were many proposals brought before me and other supervisors to say people wanted to do business with the county,” said Archie. “And we passed everything onto the board attorney.”

Some other election grant vendorsCostService provided
Business and Office Konnextions$62,909Purchase of face masks, hand sanitizer, backpack foggers, two Samsung televisions, projectors, other safety supplies
Edge of Infinity Enterprises$300,000Multimedia ad production; local media buys (including with Gray-owned stations), cable and satellite media buys; radio buys; public relations
Hardison Enterprises$68,530Provision of sanitizing mats and other sanitizing and professional services
IMS Engineers PA$263,871For the provision of COVID cleaning solutions, precinct cleaning before and after Election Day, services rendered Oct. 28 through Nov. 5, 2020

WLBT’s Quentin Smith contributed to this story.

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