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Clinton businessman tied to Hinds Co. election embezzlement scheme asks for case to be thrown out

Cornelius was arrested by agents with the State Auditor's Office Friday.
Cornelius was arrested by agents with the State Auditor's Office Friday.(Mississippi OSA)
Published: May. 27, 2022 at 10:23 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A Clinton businessman tied to an election grant embezzlement scheme in Hinds County says his case should be dismissed, in part, due to “selective prosecution.”

An attorney for Cedric Cornelius has filed a motion to toss the charges brought against his client, arguing the state is prosecuting him because he is an African American and because the state auditor doesn’t like “Zuckerbucks.”

Cornelius is facing multiple felony charges in connection with embezzling around $189,000 in grant money awarded to the county through the Mark Zuckerberg-funded Center for Tech and Civil Life.

The defendant argues that he was singled out because he is an African American, and points to the fact that the state “ignored and declined to prosecute other similarly alleged criminal acts involving Caucasian individuals.”

His attorney, Dennis Sweet, argues that the state’s inaction in that case violates his client’s rights to due process and equal protection found in the U.S. Constitution.

In particular, the motion points to individuals allegedly involved in the state’s largest welfare scandal, in which tens of millions of dollars in TANF money was embezzled and misspent.

“One only need to look to the state’s failure to criminally prosecute (most) of the individuals... who received federal TANF derived funds. The receipt of such funds was without question unlawful pursuant to published TANF guidelines. Yet, only after public outcry, the state now seeks to claw back nearly $24,000,000 from such individuals via a civil action... This begs the questions - why did the state elect not to criminally prosecute these individuals as it did with Cornelius? Why did the state elect not to seek repayment of the funds paid to Cornelius via civil action?”

“It is clear that the state has engaged in selective prosecution of Cornelius.”

In May, the State Department of Human Services filed suit against 38 people or businesses seeking to recoup $24 million in TANF dollars. The suit includes many of the people listed in Sweet’s motion.

TANF is the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Family Program. Funds were supposed to go to needy families, but instead went to everything from investing in a Florida biomedical company to bribing state officials.

“In fact, according to the Auditor’s Office, some $94,000,000 was embezzled and otherwise misspent. The recipients of such funds included a laundry-list of individuals, nearly all of whom are Caucasian,” Sweet wrote.

Sweet went on to list 14 individuals, saying all but one is white and only three had been indicted on criminal charges.

A 2020 release from Auditor Shad White, however, contradicts Sweet’s claim, saying at least six people had been arrested and charged in connection with the case: Nancy and Zach New, John Davis, Brett DiBiase, Latimer Smith and Anne McGrew.

In December 2020, DiBiase, a former professional wrestler and son of wrestling legend Ted DiBiase, Sr. pleaded guilty and agreed to pay restitution for all of the money he received.

And this week, White’s office issued a civil demand letter for more than $3.6 milion to Jacob Black, a former deputy director of DHS who allegedly misspent TANF dollars.

By comparison, five people have been arrested in connection with the embezzlement of Hinds County election funds.

All five are African American, and all have allegedly taken proceeds from a grant totaling less than $1.6 million.

“Cornelius... has been indicted for a host of alleged crimes, including conspiracy, fraudulent writings, fraudulent claims, bribery and receiving stolen property,” the attorney wrote. “It is alleged that Apogee and Cornelius were paid for work which they did not perform on behalf of the commission. It is further alleged that Cornelius was paid approximately $188,000 consisting of public funds owned by Hinds County...”

Cornelius is the owner of Apogee Group II. The company is listed as a production company on the Mississippi Secretary of State’s website. However, it was hired to distribute election education materials, provide voting machine audits and do cleaning work in association with the November 2020 election. It also received $17,825 to provide media services and still photography in association with the election, according to the indictment.

The indictment handed down earlier this year alleges that none of the work was done.

Sweet, though, says all the work Cornelius invoiced the county for was completed. “More importantly, the monies paid to Cornelius were provided by a non-profit private business, CTCL,” he said.

Sweet argues that Apogee and Cornelius were targeted because White is opposed to “Zuckerbucks.”

White has been critical of CTCL, including in an interview with WLBT, where he said the group was given hundreds of millions of dollars by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to use during the 2020 elections.

The auditor said the group provided little oversight on how the Zuckerberg funds were used, leading to widespread misuse of funds across the country.

He later applauded the Mississippi State Legislature for passing a bill banning the use of private money to fund government functions, such as hiring poll workers, in elections.

Citing those facts, and others, Sweet is asking that the case be dismissed. Should the court decline, he asks that numerous documents, including those related to Cornelius’ prosecution be produced by the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office, the Mississippi State Auditor’s Office, the Hinds County District Attorney’s Office, and the Hinds County Board of Supervisors.

Officials with the auditor’s office were not immediately available for comment after hours Friday.

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