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Hinds supervisor says Board was ‘a little careless’ in watching over election grant money, but believes they did their job

Indictments claim Election Commissioner Toni Johnson steered $310k from grant to companies that didn’t do the work
Published: Feb. 21, 2022 at 9:42 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - While indictments released this weekend in an election grant embezzlement case have already ensnared one Hinds County election commissioner -- former District 2 chairperson Toni Johnson -- at least one supervisor believes the ongoing investigation will not take the county’s board of supervisors down with her.

Credell Calhoun, who represents District 3 and voted to approve in 2020 what would ultimately be a $1.9 million election grant, said the responsibilities of the Board and election commissioners are clear.

“I know that the Board did its job. It let the money go out. And the commissioners had the responsibility of hiring the contractors,” Calhoun said. “We just did our job. And once you do your job, it’s about the bottom line. You protected the voters during the pandemic -- and a really bad pandemic.”

The initial purpose of the election grant, provided by the private non-profit Center for Tech and Civic Life, was to provide various tools to help make voters safer when voting during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing money that can be used for personal protective equipment and cleaning services, among other uses.

But as a 3 On Your Side investigation found seven months ago -- and the state auditor’s investigators released last week -- a sizable portion of that money went to companies that did not appear qualified to do the work.

Evidence presented to a Hinds County grand jury last week showed that two companies in particular -- Apogee Group II LLC and New Beginnings LLC -- didn’t do the work specified in county invoices and instead pocketed more than $310,000 altogether, representing 17 percent of the CTCL grant.

That evidence, revealed Saturday in indictments against Johnson and Apogee Group II LLC owner Cedric Cornelius, resulted in conspiracy, bribery, fraud and embezzlement charges against the duo.

The indictments also show one person not yet in custody, per a cursory inmate search provided online by the Hinds County Sheriff’s Department: Sudie Jones-Teague, who owns New Beginnings LLC.

Court documents allege Johnson, Cornelius and Jones-Teague hatched a scheme starting as far back as October 2020 to funnel taxpayer dollars to their two companies.

In exchange, the state said Johnson received at least five payments totaling $6,300 -- identified by the state as bribes -- between October 2020 and June 2021.

All of it was later identified by State Auditor Shad White’s team as illegal spending, seven months after first being identified as questionable spending through multiple 3 On Your Side investigations.

Last August, Calhoun told WLBT that the Board was more worried about protecting voters from COVID-19 than tracking every dollar.

On Monday, he reiterated that sentiment.

“You get a little careless when you want to make sure that our citizens are safe. And I think we were a little careless as a Board and not watching it as much as we should,” Calhoun said.

Both Johnson and Cornelius have since made bond and been released from the Raymond Detention Center.

The conditions of Cornelius’ bond -- ankle monitor and restricted travel -- suggest he might have been considered a flight risk.

Jones-Teague has not yet been taken into custody, according to jail records.

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