Judge to determine whether election commissioner’s trial will go forward October 3

District 2 Commissioner Toni Johnson
District 2 Commissioner Toni Johnson(Toni Johnson)
Published: Sep. 16, 2022 at 2:29 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A judge could decide as early as next week whether a Hinds County election commissioner’s embezzlement case will go to trial in October.

At a hearing on Friday, Justice Jess Dickinson spoke with attorneys to determine the fate of several motions filed in the state’s case against District 2 Election Commissioner Toni Johnson.

Johnson is facing 26 felony counts related to the embezzlement of grant money awarded to the county to keep voters and poll workers safe during the November 2020 elections.

She was originally indicted in February but was reindicted again on September 7.

Even with the new indictment handed down, she is still slated to go to trial on October 3.

Johnson’s attorney, Lisa Ross, said the trial should be postponed until she could prepare a case related to the new indictment, which cites a different code section.

“I need to go back and prepare for a new way to present my case,” she told Justice Dickinson.

The original indictment included several violations tied to Mississippi Code Section 97-7-11, which related to conspiracy to defraud the state “by obtaining or aiding to obtain the payment or allowance from the public funds of the state.”

The new indictment removes that statute on several charges and replaces it with 97-7-10, which deals with making fraudulent statements and representations, but does not refer to public funds.

Ross has argued that Johnson’s case should be dismissed because the funds involved were from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, and therefore, were not state dollars.

Two counts referencing 97-7-11 remain in the new indictment, according to court records.

Ross also drew correlations between Johnson’s case and that of John Davis, the former head of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, who is being charged with 20 counts in connection with the state’s largest welfare fraud scheme.

She said he was initially indicted in 2020 and reindicted in April of 2022, with his case not expected to go to trial until September 26.

“What’s the difference [between] my client and John Davis?” Ross asked. “Why does this case have to be on a rocket when we have other cases in Hinds County that are a decade old? I’m not aware of any instance where the defense counsel is forced to prepare for... a [superseded] indictment in four weeks.”

Ross arrived at the court about 25 minutes late and immediately began discussing the need for the continuance. Dickinson said he didn’t want to discuss continuance at the time and said if she continued, he would hold her in contempt.

“I’m just trying to defend my client,” she said.

“If you keep disrespecting this court, you’re going to be defending her from a jail cell,” he said.

Ross has filed multiple motions in both of Johnson’s cases, including a motion regarding discovery, a motion to dismiss, and a motion for an evidentiary hearing to present evidence that her client is being selectively prosecuted.

Ross argued that the District Attorney’s office had not provided her with all the documents she asked for during the discovery phase.

Among items, she said she did not receive a copy of the plea deal offered to Cedric Cornelius, or the multiple offers given to Sudie Jones-Teague.

Jones-Teague eventually accepted a plea deal, where she agreed to testify against Johnson and Cornelius. She says she needs copies of the offers to Jones-Teague to determine what her motivation was for testifying against Johnson.

Gwen Agho, assistant district attorney for Hinds County, said offers made to Cornelius have not been released because they’re still a work product.

Dickinson said the prosecution provided several responses to Ross’ claims regarding discovery that were not included in their response to Johnson’s motion. He directed them to provide those explanations in writing by Monday.

“I’m not going to put you and your client at a disadvantage with discovery,” the justice told Ross. “I’m going to ensure you get the [records] you’re entitled to.”

Meanwhile, Agho said any connection the opposition attempted to draw between Johnson and those involved in the TANF welfare scandal was irrelevant.

“This is a way to redirect from what the defendant is doing to what [Gov. Phil] Bryant is doing and what the auditor is doing, which is not relevant,” Agho said. “This is not a real defense to a crime.”

TANF is Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. Several high-profile individuals, including Gov. Phil Bryant and former NFL quarterback Brett Favre, have been linked to the scandal.

Dickinson tried to get more clarification on exactly what he hoped Ross would gain by her selective prosecution motion. “Are you asking me to dismiss the charges or to find her not guilty, even [if] the state may reach its burden of proof?”

He gave Ross until Wednesday of next week to provide additional details regarding that motion. Ross also has until Wednesday to provide the judge with statutes related to whether the special prosecutors in the case should be disqualified.

Among other motions, Ross says that District Attorney Jody Owens did not follow proper procedure in appointing a special attorney to help in the case. Owens tapped Warren County District Attorney Richard Smith and Assistant District Attorney Michael Warren to assist in the case.

Ross said that no order was filed by the court to appoint a special prosecutor and that as a result, the two should not be involved. “It has everything to do with the process,” she told the judge.

Agho, though, said Ross was wrong because Owens has not recused himself from the case, and that Smith and Warren are providing expertise that the Hinds County office does not have. “As long as we maintain control, we can ask another attorney to come in and assist because of their special knowledge,” she said.

Dickinson asked Ross to provide a statute or case backing up her claims by next week. Agho said the prosecution is resting on the response it had already filed.

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