Hinds County election commissioner, alleged co-conspirators plead not guilty in embezzlement scandal involving election grant

Published: Mar. 8, 2022 at 7:43 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - The Hinds County election commissioner and two business owners accused of conspiring to acquire hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars say they are not guilty of the charges brought forth against them by the district attorney’s office.

Moreover, Tuesday’s arraignment also revealed more about the state’s case and possible defenses that could be used if this embezzlement scandal goes to a jury.

Election Commissioner Toni Johnson and her two alleged co-conspirators, Cedric Cornelius and Sudie Jones-Teague, are each charged with counts ranging from bribery to fraud in an alleged conspiracy to get hundreds of thousands in taxpayer money for work that wasn’t even performed.

Assistant District Attorney Jamie McBride said the state has photos of Cornelius posing where he’s surrounded by money, money used to allegedly buy a brand-new Corvette.

While Jones-Teague has the most extensive criminal record — the only felon among the three defendants convicted for money laundering in the 1990s — McBride maintains Johnson was the ringleader in this scheme.

“We know at least at this point over $300,000 has gone missing. None of this occurs without Miss Johnson using her elected position to accomplish these things,” McBride said. “We think that, yes, there are victims here. The victims are the taxpayers of the state and Hinds County.”

Johnson’s attorney Lisa Ross maintained a defense calling into question State Auditor Shad White’s investigation, aided by 3 On Your Side’s own reporting last year.

Ross did that by bringing up a possible future motion involving White’s behavior.

Ross claims White sent an email to his followers with Johnson’s photo and comments about the case before she’d ever been convicted, then asked for donations at the end.

“I think that’s totally inappropriate to use a criminal matter to advertise for donations for friends of Shad White. And it certainly will interfere with my client’s right to have a fair trial,” Ross said.

Ross told the judge she would like White to be prohibited from using her client’s photo or likeness in materials for fundraising during this trial, to which Special Circuit Judge Jess Dickinson replied that she needs to file a motion with the court indicating such.

In response to the criticism, District Attorney Jody Owens told Dickinson Ross made comments online last month — asking why the state made Johnson serve time in jail when Nancy New and her son Zack, accused of bilking millions in welfare dollars, did not.

Dickinson said he expects all attorneys in this matter will act professionally and ruled that all three defendants would have the same bond requirements — unsecured $100,000 bonds, with everyone having to wear ankle monitors, including Johnson.

A combined trial could take place in August to save the court system the time and effort needed to try each defendant separately, but that has not yet been determined.

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