Clinton businessman pleads guilty to seven felony counts tied to Hinds Co. embezzlement scheme
JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A Clinton businessman tied to a Hinds County election grant embezzlement scheme has pleaded guilty to seven felony counts.
On Monday, Cedric Cornelius entered his plea in Hinds County Circuit Court.
He faces up to 40 years behind bars and $60,000 in fines and will be required to pay more than $170,000 in restitution. $50,000 of that restitution must be paid on or before January 20, 2023, according to a release from the District Attorney’s Office.
“The District Attorney’s Office is pleased that Mr. Cornelius has entered a plea today and accepted the responsibility for the crimes against Hinds County,” District Attorney Jody Owens said.
Special appointed Judge Jess Dickinson will delay sentencing until the completion of the cases against his co-defendants.
Three others involved in the case, including District 2 Election Commissioner Toni Johnson, have not entered pleas. Johnson is expected to go to trial in January. Another co-defendant, Sudie Jones-Teague, previously entered a guilty plea.
Details made public during Monday’s hearing show that at least a portion of those funds, $118,000, were allegedly steered toward Cornelius by District 2 Commissioner Toni Johnson in exchange for sexual favors, access to celebrities and potential movie roles.
Cornelius was the registered agent for the now-defunct Apogee Group II. According to the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Website, the company was formed in September 2020 and was dissolved the following year.
Assistant District Attorney Gwen Agho told Dickinson that had the case gone to trial, the DA was prepared to show that between October 2020 and July 2021, Cornelius promised Johnson those favors in exchange for lucrative county contracts.
Cornelius received more $38,000 to provide election machine audits following the November 2020 election. However, that work was never done. He received another $118,500 to distribute election materials prior to the November election, work that also was not done, according to court records.
The contracts were funded with money the county received from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, funds the county received to help keep voters and election workers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cornelius also received payments of around $4,700, also for work that was not completed. That money came from county coffers, according to court records.
The plea hearing comes weeks after WLBT reported on new findings in the court records, which reveal Johnson, as chair of the election commission, allegedly eliminated the selection process for hiring vendors, “implement[ing] her own personal brand of cronyism, picking whomever she liked without explanation or input from anyone.”
Lisa Ross, an attorney for Johnson, denies the charges against her client, arguing that all expenditures had to be approved by the board of supervisors. She says that just because Johnson’s name is on the invoices related to those contracts doesn’t prove she’s guilty.
“Your name could be on an invoice, but you can’t go down there and direct them to write a check, can you?” she asked. “That has to be approved by law, by the board of supervisors. And if you go back and look at their minutes you will see where they approved all of this [as business].”
She said claims that Cornelius and Johnson were involved in a physical relationship also doesn’t prove her client steered contracts to him. “You could be having sex with someone who works for the board of supervisors. Does that mean that you’ve committed a crime?” Ross said. “We’re going to trial and if you want to know anything else, meet us in trial on January 3... and we will answer the charges at that time.”
Cornelius will continue to remain free on bond. However, his travel will be restricted, with any out-of-state trips having to be approved by the DA. He also must continue to wear an ankle monitoring device.
Dickinson denied requests to lift the travel restrictions and remove the ankle monitoring requirement, citing the defendant’s need to travel out-of-state on business.
The judge did direct prosecutors to approve any business-related travel on good faith, as long as Cornelius provides information, such as travel dates, copies of airplane tickets, and letters from companies explaining the purpose of the travel.
“I know it’s an imposition, but I’m not going to approve it unless the state agrees to it,” Dickinson said. The state did not agree to lift the restriction.
Cornelius’ attorney, Dennis Sweet, declined to comment following the proceedings.
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