Hinds Co. Commissioner Toni Johnson pleads guilty in embezzlement case

As a convicted felon, Johnson must step down immediately and is barred from again holding elected office.
Published: Jan. 9, 2023 at 3:11 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A Hinds County election commissioner is now out of office and faces five years of house arrest after accepting a plea deal in connection with misspending thousands of dollars in grant money designed to keep voters safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hours after jury selection got under way in her trial, District 2 Election Commissioner Toni Johnson accepted a plea deal, agreeing to enter guilty pleas to three felony counts.

As a convicted felon, she can no longer serve in elected office, per state statute. She also must report to the state on Tuesday, to begin her sentence under the “Intensive Supervision Program” with the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

Johnson was facing 26 felony counts and multiple years behind bars. Under terms of the plea deal, she was sentenced to 20 years in prison, with 15 years suspended, and five years of house arrest.

The former commissioner also must repay more than $24,000 in restitution, which she will be allowed to make in monthly installments, as well as $500 in fees to the District Attorney’s Office.

“It’s a good day for Hinds County. It’s a good day for the state of Mississippi any time someone accepts the responsibility for any crime they committed, particularly where it’s an issue of public trust,” District Attorney Jody Owens said, standing outside the courtroom. “We know this came about [because of] the COVID pandemic, and now we can move forward with the business of Hinds County.”

“It’s important that we stop public officials from corruption. That’s something this administration has been committed to do for quite some time, at the state level and at the county level,” he added. “And for us, that is justice.”

Johnson pleaded guilty to two counts of embezzlement by a public official and one count of making false representations to defraud the government, both in violation of state statute.

One count included a $7,105 contract awarded to Apogee Group II for work that was never done. Another count included using her position to embezzle or convert to her own use two 85-inch Samsung televisions for her own use. The televisions were purchased using funds from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which the county received to keep voters and poll workers safe during the pandemic.

Apogee Group II was owned by Clinton businessman Cedric Cornelius. Cornelius, along with another co-conspirator, have pleaded guilty in the case but have not been sentenced.

As for the televisions, they were later found to be in Johnson’s and a co-conspirator’s homes during a raid by the State Auditor. Two smaller Vizio televisions had been purchased and left at the Election Commission’s headquarters in place of the Samsungs.

Hinds County Election Commission spent grant money on televisions and other home appliances.
Hinds County Election Commission spent grant money on televisions and other home appliances.(WLBT)

Justice Jess Dickinson said his decision to accept the plea deal did not excuse her actions. “But I’m a very strong believer in second chances in life, and you will survive it, so I wish you well,” he said. “I hope you complete your sentence and get back on track with your life. I know that you can do that.”

Lisa Ross, Johnson’s attorney, said with the case now over, the district attorney and the state need to pursue “Phil Bryant, Brett Favre and all the people who steal from poor women and children in the state.”

“And until that’s done, there will continue to be a stain on the justice system in Mississippi.”

Ross has long contended that several individuals allegedly tied to an unrelated case involving the misuse of tens of millions of dollars in federal welfare funds have not been prosecuted, including a former governor and an NFL Hall of Fame quarterback.

She says those individuals, former Gov. Phil Bryant and retired quarterback Brett Favre, are both white, while Johnson is Black.

Ross had filed a motion for discovery to determine if her client was being selectively prosecuted, but Dickinson denied it. On January 6, Ross filed a petition to appeal that decision with the Mississippi State Supreme Court.

She also filed a motion for Dickinson to recuse himself, pointing to a news report from Mississippi Today that the retired Supreme Court justice’s name was “mentioned in a text message of individuals connected to Toni Johnson’s comparators.”

[READ MORE: Judge denies motion for discovery to prove ‘selective prosecution’ in Johnson case]

Ross alleged that the text shows Dickinson had “political connections” to those who have not been prosecuted in the case, and that, as a result, he should disqualify himself from the Johnson matter.

However, a quick read of the article does not make it clear what political connections Ross was referring to.

Ross said her motion to recuse had nothing to do with her client’s decision to accept a plea. “What happened is the case was simply overcharged. Instead of just charging for the conduct on which they could possibly get a conviction, they overcharged the case,” she said. “When we got here this morning, they dismissed six of the counts, and by this afternoon, we had negotiated it down to three.”

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