Judge denies motion to dismiss charges against Hinds Co. election commissioner

PANDEMIC PROFITS: Here’s how Hinds Co. spent more than $1.8 million in election grant funding
PANDEMIC PROFITS: Here’s how Hinds Co. spent more than $1.8 million in election grant funding
Published: Dec. 15, 2022 at 5:12 PM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A special appointed judge has denied a motion to dismiss the case against Hinds County District 2 Election Commissioner Toni Johnson, which was filed earlier this year on grounds that the state auditor did not have jurisdiction to investigate her.

Early this week, Justice Jess Dickinson said the request was “not well taken and due to be denied” after “having heard argument and being fully advised on the premises.”

District 2 Commissioner Toni Johnson
District 2 Commissioner Toni Johnson(Toni Johnson)

Johnson is facing 26 felony counts in connection with embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money the county received to keep election workers and voters safe during the 2020 general election.

The majority of the funds came to the county through the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which is funded in large part by Facebook and Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Johnson’s attorney, Lisa Ross, has maintained that her client is being selectively prosecuted, and that State Auditor Shad White has targeted her for political reasons.

White has long maintained that’s not the case, but Johnson’s attorney can file any motion she wants.

“She can push this narrative she wants to push, and the judge continues to rule in our favor,” spokesman Fletcher Freeman said.

Meanwhile, she argues that some individuals involved in the much larger scandal involving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds have not been prosecuted.

Ross argues that the “selective prosecution” violates Johnson’s equal protection rights under the law.

Judge Jess Dickinson hears arguments in a previous case.
Judge Jess Dickinson hears arguments in a previous case.(WLBT)

A motion filed on February 27 states that more than a week after Johnson was arrested, the auditor sent an email to his supporters using her arrest to raise money for his political action committee.

Later court records filed by Johnson’s attorney include a Tweet allegedly from White talking about the arrests, and the danger of using private funds to cover election costs, as well as a press release from Gov. Tate Reeves announcing the signing of a bill that would prohibit the use of such funds in elections.

Johnson was arrested earlier this year after being indicted on 26 felony counts by a Hinds County grand jury. Also arrested in the case were Clinton businessman Cedric Cornelius, former drug kingpin Sudie Jones-Teague, and Undare and Trafonda Kidd.

Cornelius and Jones-Teague have since pleaded guilty for their involvement in the scandal. The two will not be sentenced until the conclusion of Johnson’s trial, which is slated to begin in January.

Hinds County received more than $1.8 million in election grant dollars from CTCL and the Schwarzenegger Institute.

The Hinds County District Attorney’s Office alleges that Johnson used her position on the Election Commission to award hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts to friends. Records indicate that Cornelius, on behalf of his company Apogee Group II, presented nearly $210,000 in invoices to the commissioner for work that was never performed, including for voting machine audits, media services and election material distribution.

Jones-Teague, meanwhile, submitted invoices for nearly $127,000 for catering and cleaning services, which also were not provided.

As part of his plea deal, Cornelius has agreed to repay $170,000 in restitution, including $50,000 that must be paid on or before January 20, 2023. Jones-Teague is required to repay more than $81,000 in restitution, including $10,000 on or before February 27, 2023.

Meanwhile, Johnson is expected to appear in court again on Tuesday, to discuss the future of several motions for subpoenas.

Ross wants records from Gov. Tate Reeves, former Gov. Phil Bryant and the University of Mississippi “relevant to Johnson’s claim that she is similarly situated to Bryant and Reeves and is being treated differently than they are.”

Reports in Mississippi Today have detailed Reeves’ and Bryant’s alleged involvement in the state’s TANF scandal. However, neither the governor or former governor have been charged or convicted of any crime.

“Unlike Johnson, Bryant and Reeves remain unindicted even though State Auditor Shad White says he sent Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens the results of his investigation into the theft of TANF funds,” Ross wrote.

While court records did not indicate the judge had ruled on the matter, the Mississippi Electronic Courts Database shows that a subpoena had been served to Gov. Reeves seeking documents regarding his involvement with the funding of the USM Volleyball Center, which Mississippi Today reported was “the single largest known purchase in the welfare scandal.”

A second subpoena had been executed seeking from Jackson Public Schools a list of all employees assigned to work as certified teachers in the social studies department at Lanier High School, their attendance records, and contracts showing the number of days they were expected to work in the 2021-22 and 2022-23 academic years. It was unclear why Johnson’s attorney was seeking information from the school district.

Court records indicate Johnson also is seeking documents from Board of Supervisors President Credell Calhoun, including those reflecting communications between the board and election commission regarding the CTCL grant, invoices related to CTCL spending, minutes related to CTCL spending and others.

Representatives for Johnson, Reeves and Owens were not immediately available for comment.

Want more WLBT news in your inbox? Click here to subscribe to our newsletter.