‘Seeks to waste the time of the court’ | Auditor responds to motion to disqualify him in Hinds Co. embezzlement case
JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Mississippi Auditor Shad White has fired back against a motion that says he should be disqualified from participating in an embezzlement case against a Hinds County election commissioner.
In June, an attorney for District 2 Commissioner Toni Johnson filed a motion to have White and his office barred from participating in the case, in part, for attempting to use her arrest for political gain.
In his response, White argues that Johnson’s motion should be tossed and that it only “seeks to waste the time of the court on likely moot matters.”
Meanwhile, he argues that if the motion is approved, it could have a chilling effect on the prosecution’s efforts.
“The defendant appears to seek a blanket prohibition when the prosecutor has reportedly not made a decision as to who might be called as a witness from among the law enforcement officers employed by the Office of the State Auditor,” he wrote. “Until such a decision is made, a blanket prohibition of any or all of them being called as a witness is moot.”
At the heart of the matter is whether White and representatives from his office should be allowed to serve as witnesses in the case against Toni Johnson, the District 2 commissioner who was arrested on embezzlement charges in February.
Johnson’s attorney, Lisa Ross, says he should not be, in part, because the auditor used Johnson’s arrest as part of a fundraising effort. She went on to say that White’s actions violate Mississippi Code and Mississippi Rules of Professional Conduct.
“He dived into uncharted territory when he used Johnson’s case to raise money for ‘Friends of Shad White’ while... Johnson’s [case] is pending before this court,” Ross wrote. “White’s conduct is so unorthodox that there appears to be only one reported case in the United States in which a prosecutor used a criminal proceeding to solicit funds for her political campaign.”
White, though, says he’s not a prosecutor in the case and added that he likely won’t even be called as a witness.
“In all his years of service, the state auditor has not been called as a witness in a criminal matter based upon facts uncovered by criminal law enforcement officials employed by the Office of the State Auditor,” he wrote.
Johnson was arrested in February in connection with misspending hundreds of thousands of dollars in election grant funds designed to keep voters and poll workers safe. In all, she faces 26 felony counts, including charges of fraud, embezzlement, and accepting bribes.
The funds in question were awarded to the county through the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a group that received hundreds of millions of dollars in donations from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
White cited Johnson’s arrest, as well as the problem with “Zuckerbucks,” in a Feb. 27 email soliciting campaign funds.
“Over the last week we arrested three people for crimes involving the theft of so-called ‘Zuckerbucks.’ Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into local elections offices in 2020... That spending created a perfect recipe for fraud,” the email stated.
The email went on to state that in Hinds County, “we found that an election commissioner allegedly purchased two 85-inch televisions and PPE with the money, and then she had it delivered to her home and another private residence. We arrested her.”
Johnson argues that White’s solicitation of funds “demonstrates his personal interest in Johnson’s case, raises the appearance of impropriety, and jeopardizes Johnson’s right to a fair trial.”
“More disgusting, White used Johnson and the circumstances surrounding her case to rally his political base and fuel contributions.”
The email references WLBT’s coverage of Johnson’s arrest and includes a tab that donors could click on to give to his campaign.
Johnson compared White’s actions to that of the circuit attorney’s case in the State of Missouri v. Mark McCloskey.
In that matter, the prosecuting attorney raised $17,000 “as a result of the emails she sent after she charged McCloskey during her fundraising efforts.”
The court later disqualified her from prosecuting the case, court records show.
White reiterated the fact that he is not the prosecutor in the Johnson case, nor does he have the power to prosecute criminal charges.
“The district attorney for the First Judicial District of Hinds County... and his office are independent and exercise exclusive authority as to those matters entrusted to him by the people of Hinds County,” he wrote.
Johnson’s attorney claims that White violated Mississippi Code Section 25-4-105(1), which states that “no public servant shall use his official position to obtain, or attempt to obtain, pecuniary benefit for himself other than that compensation provided for by law.”
White, though, said that no law was violated and that any violation of the statute would be handled by the Mississippi Ethics Commission, rather than the circuit courts.
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