Special agents from the Mississippi Office of the State Auditor arrested Hinds County District 2 Election Commissioner Toni Johnson, 36, and businessman Cedric Cornelius, 46, on Friday, Feb. 18, 2022, as alleged accomplices in defrauding the county. An alleged collaborator, Sudie Jones-Teague, surrendered herself at the Hinds County Detention Center on Feb. 22.
“She is accused of working with both Cedric Cornelius and Toni Johnson to have New Beginnings—her own company—illegitimately approved as a vendor for Hinds County and (be) paid without actually performing work,” the State Auditor’s Office announced on Tuesday regarding Jones-Teague. “New Beginnings is registered as a ‘hair and fashion’ company but was paid to perform cleaning and catering services.”
On Monday, Feb. 21, Hinds County Senior Circuit Judge Tomie Green assigned Johnson and Cornelius cases to Senior Status Judge Jess H. Dickinson after their release from the Hinds County Detention Center in Raymond on Saturday, Feb. 19—each on a $100,000 bond.
Kenya Martin, Johnson’s lawyer, told the Mississippi Free Press Tuesday that he does not have any comment on the case. After calls and emails to Dennis Sweet III, Cornelius’ lawyer, on Feb. 21 and Feb. 22 for comments on the case, this reporter has not received a response before press time.
Hinds County District 3 Supervisor Credell Calhoun expressed surprise at Johnson’s arrest and said county leadership will look into setting safeguards for the future. “I just couldn’t believe that she had gone that far,” Calhoun told the Mississippi Free Press on Saturday.
State Auditor Shad White’s office distributed press releases last Friday and again on Tuesday indicating that special agents demanded that Johnson refund $25,893; that Cornelius—who operated through a now-defunct company, Apogee Group II, LLC—repay $216,227.28; and that Jones-Teague return $143,459 to Hinds County’s coffers.
Friday’s press statement said that “a portion of the money allegedly obtained by these individuals came from $1.9 million in grants awarded to Hinds County by the (Chicago Ill.-based) Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL)—a nonprofit organization funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.”
On Sept. 1, 2020, Center for Tech and Civic Life announced that Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, had committed $250 million to the organization “to promote safe and reliable voting in states and localities during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the release continued.
Calhoun said the Hinds County election commissioners got the Center for Tech and Civic Life grant to prepare for the 2020 general election amid the pandemic. They used the grant money to provide one pen for each voter and hand sanitizer for all present, to disinfect voting precincts and to publicize the safety of the polling units.
“We had to accept the funds into the county, and the money was to make sure that the voters going to the poll were safe from COVID; that’s what the money was for,” the board of supervisors’ president said. “And once it’s accepted, it’s the money for the county, for the people of Hinds County, and I don’t know why it went so awry like it did.”
The indictments allege that Johnson, Cornelius and Jones-Teague conspired to get Hinds County to pay Agopee Group II and New Beginnings for work they did not do or finish. Listed services include cleaning, media services, distribution of election materials and voting-machine audits. Johnson’s indictments also accused the parties of converting personal protective equipment from polling units for private use.
A search on the Mississippi Secretary of State’s website shows that Cedric Cornelius founded Apogee Group II on Sept. 2, 2020. Jones-Teague founded New Beginnings Hair & Fashion on May 19, 2020, with a registered office at Crystal Springs in Copiah County. On Sept. 30, 2020, the Hinds County Board of Supervisors accepted the $1,519,000 grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life.
One year after Cornelius set up the business as a “site preparation contractors and motion picture and video production” outfit, he filed for its dissolution on Set 7, 2021. New Beginnings is still in “good standing” according to the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office.
“We’re going to look at it,” Calhoun said during the interview. “We’re going to talk to the (county) administrator as a board to make sure that we put safeguards in place so that won’t happen.”
“It’s up to the people that get elected to be honest, and, you know, you can’t watch everyone every minute; that’s not possible,” he added.
State Auditor White requested in Tuesday’s release that anyone who has information on this case or any others call the auditor’s office at 1-800-321-1275.
While none of the allegations against Johnson, Cornelius and Jones-Teague has been proven in a court of law, White’s spokesman Logan Reeves said that fraud commonly occurs when there is a sudden cash infusion, and he advocated for internal control mechanisms.
“(CTCL) saw (a) nearly 400% increase in its annual budget, its granting budget (in 2020),” Reeves told the MIssissippi Free Press over the phone on Tuesday. “It’s just very difficult for them to institute the internal controls for their granting process. And on the back end—the election commission—they exceeded their budget by getting the grants, and they had a large influx of cash, and there just weren’t the proper internal controls and reporting mechanisms around that money.”
“These places and these smaller offices, they’ve just got to have leadership that is willing to go the extra mile, in doing all that they can to just eliminate even the ability of one person to have enough control over the office or the purchases and orders and things like that, to have that opportunity to be able to take money or commit fraud,” he asserted.