Hinds Co. election commissioner, business owner arrested, accused of misspending more than $200K in election grant money

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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) – A Hinds County election commissioner and a local business owner is facing multiple charges and is being required to repay nearly $250,000 to taxpayers.

Friday, agents with the Mississippi State Auditor’s Office arrested District 2 Commissioner Toni Johnson and Clinton resident Cedric Cornelius in connection with misspending hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money awarded to the county to protect voters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Johnson is accused of fraud, embezzlement, and accepting a bribe. Cornelius has been indicted for conspiracy, bribery, and fraud.

Indictments were handed down by a Hinds County grand jury Thursday, Auditor Shad White said.

He says Johnson used her position on the commission to, among other things, purchase two 85-inch televisions and personal protective equipment, which she “purportedly had delivered to her own home and one other private residence.”

“To conceal the scheme, she allegedly purchased smaller, less-expensive televisions as ‘replacements,’ for the larger televisions purchased by (the commission),” according to an auditor press release.

Two Vizio TVs, still in their box, were found at the Election Commission’s headquarters.

Johnson was arrested at her Clinton home Friday morning. She was escorted in handcuffs to a vehicle waiting outside. Agents from the auditor’s office issued her a demand letter, saying she owes the county $25,893.80, which includes interests and investigative costs.

Cornelius was said to have used his company, Apogee Group II, to “work with Toni Johnson to be paid without work being performed. The company was awarded contracts to perform cleaning services, COVID-19 testing, and voting machine audits… despite being registered as a ‘motion picture and video production company’ with the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office.

Secretary Michael Watson’s website shows that Apogee was dissolved on November 29, 2021.

WLBT requested a copy of the post-election audit through the county’s open record request portal in October. That request has yet to be filled.

A $216,227.80 demand letter was issued to Cornelius when he was taken into custody, the auditor’s office states.

The auditor says a portion of the money allegedly obtained by these individuals came from $1.9 million in grants awarded to Hinds County by the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL)—a nonprofit organization funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. This organization gave over $350 million to election offices across the country during the 2020 election season according to the Wall Street Journal.

“So, as a general rule, the way we think about it is, if you have a private donation to a government office, once that money hits a government bank account, that’s public money,” White explained. “It has to follow all the same rules that any other taxpayer dollar has to follow.”

“Putting that aside, though, it’s important to remember that even if that money weren’t public dollars, even if weren’t public money, you can still commit crimes with that money. If you submit fraudulent invoices, for instance, you’re still committing fraud whether we would classify that money as government money, private money, whatever it may be,” he added. “In addition to that… you cannot use your public position, your official position, (to) take a bribe and then make a decision as a result of taking that bribe.”

White could not say if additional people would be charged. He also could comment on whether any other indictments were handed down.

“It’s a sad day for Hinds County,” District 1 Commissioner Kidada Brown said. “Unfortunately, it’s what happened. I will continue to work for the citizens of District 1 and Hinds County to make sure we have fair, safe, and secure elections.”

The arrests come months after WLBT’s investigation into the commission’s questionable spending of more than $1.8 million in grant money the county received to keep voters safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

District 2 Supervisor David Archie initially questioned the commission’s spending last July, including the roughly $8,400 it had spent on training luncheons in February and March 2021. Commissioners who spoke to WLBT said they never attended the sessions.

Johnson, who was chair of the election commission at the time of the spending, signed off on most, if not all, of the invoices related to the expenditures.

“The Hinds County District Attorney’s Office looks forward to working with the State Auditor Shad White and his dedicated team to end public corruption in Mississippi,” District Attorney Owens said. “The misuse of government funds designed to aid the citizens of Hinds County will not be tolerated by our office and those who break the law will be prosecuted.”

Johnson resigned as election commission chair in July, after initial allegations of misspending arose. Her decision to step down was announced only moments before she was set to be voted out by her fellow board members.

Johnson and Cornelius were transported to the Hinds County Detention Center in Raymond. The Hinds County Sheriff’s Office and Clinton Police Department assisted with the arrest.

Meanwhile, Clinton Police Department confirms that they assisted the auditor’s office when it raided Johnson’s home last fall.

Johnson remains in her position as District 2 commissioner. Both are innocent until proven guilty.

It was unclear when the two would make their initial appearances.

Johnson’s attorney was not immediately available for comment.

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