A Hinds County election commissioner and two business owners pleaded not guilty to multiple charges of fraud, embezzlement, bribery and conspiracy during 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 were ordered to wear ankle monitors until trial.
Special Circuit Judge Jess Dickinsonsaid Cornelius, Johnson and Jones-Teague will not be allowed to communicate with each other unless all three of their attorneys are present, such as during preparation for trial.
Attorneys for the defendants asked for the bonds to be reduced, saying their clients can be trusted to return to court. Prosecutors from the Hinds County District Attorney’s office argued the $100,000 unsecured bond was appropriate.
An ankle monitor originally was not ordered for Johnson, but Judge Dickinson included it as part of her bond.
The state auditor’s office claims Johnson and Cornelius defrauded the county of a total of $300,000. A portion of money allegedly came from a $1.9 million grant awarded to Hinds County by the Center for Tech and Civic Life — a nonprofit organization funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Investigators believe Johnson used county money and her elected position to buy two 85-inch televisions and personal protective equipment. To hide the purchases, they allege Johnson bought smaller, less expensive purchased televisions to replace the larger ones 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 New Beginnings salon, allegedly worked with Johnson and Cornelius as an illegitimately approved county vendor, according to the auditors. Jones-Teague’s business did not perform services for the county and owes Hinds County taxpayers nearly $150,000.
Questions raised case publicity of case
Attorney Lisa Ross, who is representing Johnson, said her client’s right to a fair trial is being compromised by comments made by Auditor Shad White.
After Johnson’s Feb. 18 arrest, Ross said she received an email from campaign group Friends of Shad White that included a picture of Johnson, a blurb about her case and information about where to send donations.
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White has also made similar comments about the Hinds County cases on social media:
Ross said what the auditor is doing is inappropriate and should not continue. Judge Dickinson asked for her to file a motion and he will set a hearing to bring White in and have him respond.
“I’m not going to have a potential jury pool tainted by publicity,” Dickinson said.
Auditor Spokesman Logan Reeves said the office issued two statements mentioning Johnson’s name when she was arrested and when one of her alleged co-conspirators was arrested. Since then, the office has not published her name or likeness, he said.
“Her attorney is free to file whatever motions and make whatever arguments she would like,” White said in a statement.
Hinds District Attorney Jody Owens said Ross has made her own comments online about the state’s case and auditor’s investigation. He mentioned in one post, Ross said “shame on” him and White.
Ross said she made those comments as a member of the public before she became Johnson’s attorney.
“Save your comments for the courtroom and jury,” Dickinson told all of the attorneys toward the end of the arraignments.
Reporter Mina Corpuz can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter @mlcorpuz.