A Hinds County election commissioner and two business owners pleaded not guilty to multiple charges of fraud, embezzlement, bribery and conspiracy in separate arraignments Tuesday in Hinds County Circuit Court.
District 2 Election Commissioner Toni Johnson, Clinton Business Owner Cedric Cornelius, and Jackson Business Owner Sudie Jones-Teague had their bonds set at $100,000 and received the order to wear ankle monitors until the trial.
Special Circuit Judge Jess Dickinsons said Cornelius, Johnson and Jones-Teague will not be allowed to communicate with each other unless their three attorneys are present, such as during trial prep.
Lawyers for the defendants have called for bail to be reduced, saying their clients can be trusted to return to court. Prosecutors from the Hinds County District Attorney’s Office argued that the unsecured bond of $100,000 was appropriate.
An ankle monitor was not originally ordered for Johnson, but Judge Dickinson included it as part of his engagement.
The state auditor’s office says Johnson and Cornelius defrauded the county of a total of $300,000. Some of the money is said to come from a $1.9 million grant to Hinds County from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Investigators believe Johnson used county money and his elected office to buy two 85-inch televisions and personal protective equipment. To hide the purchases, they allege Johnson bought smaller, cheaper TVs to replace the larger ones purchased by the Election Commission.
Investigators believe Cornelius used his company, Apogee Group II LLC, to work with Johnson to perform cleaning services, COVID-19 testing and voting machine audits for the county, but the work was not performed, according to the auditor’s office.
Jones-Teague, owner of the New Beginnings salon, allegedly worked with Johnson and Cornelius as an illegitimately approved county salesman, auditors say. Jones-Teague’s company did no service for the county and owes Hinds County taxpayers nearly $150,000.
Issues Raised Publicity of the Case
Lawyer Lisa Ross, who represents Johnson, said her client’s right to a fair trial was compromised by comments from auditor Shad White.
After Johnson’s arrest on February 18, Ross said he received an email from the Friends of Shad White campaign group that included a photo of Johnson, a blurb about his case and information on where to send. donations.
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White also made similar comments about the Hinds County business on social media:
Ross said what the auditor is doing is inappropriate and should not continue. Judge Dickinson has asked him to file a motion and he will set up a hearing to bring White in and have him answer.
“I’m not going to have a potential jury tainted with publicity,” Dickinson said.
Hearer’s spokesman Logan Reeves said the bureau released two statements mentioning Johnson’s name during his arrest and during the arrest of one of his alleged co-conspirators. Since then, the office has not released his name or likeness, he said.
“His attorney is free to file any motions and make any arguments he wishes,” White said in a statement.
Hinds District Attorney Jody Owens said Ross made his own comments online about the state’s case and the auditor’s investigation. He mentioned in a post, Ross said “shame on him and White”.
Ross said she made the comments as a member of the public before becoming Johnson’s attorney.
“Save your comments for the courtroom and the jury,” Dickinson told all the attorneys near the end of the arraignments.
Journalist Mina Corpuz can be reached by email at [email protected] You can follow her on Twitter @mlcorpuz.