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Another questionable invoice emerges for Hinds Co. Election Commission

Published: Sep. 13, 2021 at 6:24 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Weeks after 3 On Your Side raised questions on how Hinds County spent more than $1.8 million in election grant money, the county’s election commission has confirmed that it is being investigated by the Mississippi State Auditor.

Last month, a little more than a week after our Pandemic Profits report aired, officials with the auditor’s office visited the commission’s headquarters on Commerce Street.

It was unclear if the auditor’s investigation was related to the spending or to our report, and neither commissioners nor officials in Auditor Shad White’s office would offer details.

“We won’t comment on that because it’s an ongoing investigation,” Commission Chair Jermal Clark said. “They’re finding – they’ll let us know what they find and didn’t find. As far as the commission is concerned, we won’t have any comments based on that particular situation.”

Auditor spokesman Logan Reeves said the auditor’s office “does not confirm or comment on potential or pending investigations.”

The investigation comes after a tumultuous few weeks for the commission. In July, Hinds County District 2 Supervisor David Archie asked about thousands in commission expenditures, including two $4,200 training luncheons that commissioners never attended. The luncheons were paid for with county money.

A day after that meeting, Commission Toni Johnson resigned as commission chair, only minutes before members voted 4-0 to remove her from the position.

A subsequent WLBT investigation uncovered numerous questionable expenditures funded by a grant awarded to the county to help keep voters safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last year, the commission received $1.9 million in grant funding to keep voters safe during coronavirus. The majority of those funds came from the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life.

Since then, even more questions have arisen about election commission spending. This time, it’s an invoice for printing services that election commission members say they don’t know anything about.

Last week, upon the recommendation of the county administrator, the Board of Supervisors rejected a $15,000 invoice from Classic Printing after commissioners were unable to offer specifics about the contract.

According to a copy of the invoice obtained by WLBT, Classic printed 90,000 full-color postcards and 150 18-inch by 24-inch yard signs for the commission in June. The commission was charged 0.166 cents apiece for each item, the invoice shows.

The HInds Co. Board of Supervisors rejected paying an invoice services provided by Classic...
The HInds Co. Board of Supervisors rejected paying an invoice services provided by Classic Printing.(Special to WLBT)

“We don’t know what it was for. We saw the contract, as well, and she is waiting to get paid for it,” said District 1 Commissioner Kidada Brown. “As of now, we don’t know the specifics of what has been printed. (But) it is an invoice that needs to be paid.”

Brown was referring to Willa Womack, Classic Printing’s owner.

Womack also would not say what she printed and asked us why we were looking into her business.

She said this was not the first time the board had denied payment for her, and that she expects the county to reach out to her to work out an agreement. “I’m sure they’re going to get in contact,” she said. “They deny a lot of claims.”

While no one could or would say what the contract was for, sources familiar with the situation said the materials were printed for Jackson municipal elections.

According to the Mississippi Secretary of State’s website, the general election day for municipal races was June 8.

It was not clear who requisitioned the printing services and the information was not found in the commission’s minutes.

When asked, Commission Secretary Yvonne Horton said she didn’t remember putting anything about Classic Printing in the minutes. “I am the secretary and the answer is no,” she said.

County Administrator Kenny Wayne Jones recommended that the board reject the invoice. However, he said his recommendation did not mean anything fishy was going on.

“The rejection of a bill or the rejection of an invoice can have multiple reasons by the county’s fiduciary responsibility,” he said. “If something does not have a PO, we reject it. If the work on something cannot be verified, we reject it. If something is questionable, we reject it. It can be any one of those mechanisms that caused the rejection.”

“But at the same time, when it is rejected, it is sent across the street. We sent it to the judiciary... judiciary reviews it. They review everything that comes before them and then they send us back a determination on whether we should pay it,” he added. “That gives us additional oversight on what we’re trying to do.”

In this case, Jones said there was a question on whether county money could be used “for a municipality we were helping... and if we could do that or not.”

However, he did not confirm that the materials were printed for a specific municipality or race.

Jones said the work was done and that the vendor should not be penalized when they’ve done the work.

“We never want to penalize the vendor for doing work when they’ve done it, and we want to get them paid,” he said. “It’s just that we also cooperate with our investigations. So, if something comes through and is already a pending investigation, we might reject it, so it goes to the court, so there can be additional paperwork on what they’re looking for.”

Commission members agree that Womack should be paid, but said the county typically doesn’t spend county money on city elections. Horton was unsure whether state statute prohibited the county from funding municipal elections, and said we should reach out to the secretary of state for clarification.

Elizabeth Jonson, director of publications with Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson’s Office, said her office was working to get us an answer.

For her part, Brown says she is disheartened that the commission’s actions have to be investigated. “I ran on integrity. And right now, with everything (that) is going on, I really hate what is going on. It brings a dark cloud over our board,” she said. “We have a lot of thoughts, but right now we just can’t speak on it... It’s very frustrating.”

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