Moss Point, Miss., Mayor Mario King and his wife, Natasha King, each plan to plead guilty in federal court to a single offense after federal prosecutors charged them with 13 counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government last summer.
An June indictment alleged that, after the Jackson County couple raised funds in 2019 that should have gone to a mental-health program for the Moss Point School District, they instead “used the proceeds for personal purchases, including the down payment on the purchase of a vehicle, cash withdrawals and credit card debts to complete the purchase” of a pedigreed pet dog.
Mario King, a Democrat who has led the city since 2017, announced his “intent to enter a guilty plea to a charge brought against him by the Government” in a Feb. 16 court filing in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi. Natasha King entered a plea using similar language the next day.
The documents do not specify the charge to which the couple will plead guilty and also do not say whether they dispute any of the facts or allegations that prosecutors laid out last year. U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst, Mississippi State Auditor Shad White and FBI Special Agent in Charge Michelle A. Sutphin announced the indictments on July 10, 2020.
‘Making a Difference for the Mental Health Community’
Last summer’s grand jury indictment said the couple “did knowingly and willfully conspire with each other and with others known and unknown … to devise a scheme and artifice to defraud contributors to the Mayor’s Gala” in order to obtain money through “false and fraudulent pretenses.”
The charging document notes that the Kings advertised the Mayor’s Gala as one that “honors and supports organizations that are making a difference for the mental health community” and that proceeds would “support the efforts of mental health in the City of Moss Point with a focus on the Moss Point School District, converting spaces into a therapeutic and innovative learning environment.”
The couple, the filings allege, formed a business with the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office called Rejuvenate LLC and opened a bank account for it with Hancock Bank in Gulfport, Miss. They began selling tickets to the Gala and “soliciting contributions” in late 2018, the indictment says, and then deposited or transferred those funds to the Rejuvenate LLC bank account.
“Some of the funds were used for the purpose of hosting the Gala. Most of the funds, however, were not,” the charging document says. “The defendants, Mario King and Natasha R. King, failed to provide any of these funds to the Moss Point School District as represented in their solicitations. On April 8, 2019, defendant, Natasha R. King, used a debit card on the Rejuvenate LLC bank account and the funds solicited for the Gala to make a $2,000 down payment on a Cadillac XTC with CarMax.”
Natasha King later returned the car to CarMax on April 20, 2019, the filing says. After CarMax sent her a $2,000 refund for the down payment, it says, she deposited it in the couple’s personal bank account on April 29, 2019.
On May 12, the document says, Natasha King used $3,000 of proceeds from the Gala for a $3,700 down payment on a Volvo.
The charging document claims that the couple also used the funds in the Rejuvenate LLC bank account to pay off $745 in credit card debt which the couple had used “for the purchase of a Biewer Terrier from the Animal Medical Center in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in December 2018.”
In a separate controversy in 2019, 11 people sued the City of Moss Point, alleging that King “forced older employees to retire or resign so he could hire millennials” and that he “misused the city’s taxpayer funds,” the Associated Press reported.
Mario and Natasha King could face up to 20 years in prison each if convicted on all charges, though their plans to plead guilty could indicate a plea deal for a lower sentence.
Voting Begins Feb. 22 in Race to Replace King
After the mayor’s indictments last year, the Moss Point Board of Aldermen said in a statement that the body “cannot force a resignation.”
This afternoon, the Sun Herald reported that Moss Point Alderman Wayne Lennup called the case “one of several unwanted distractions that have hindered our city’s progress during this term.”
“For the sake of the good citizens of Moss Point, and the well-being of the city, I think the mayor should resign immediately,” the Sun Herald reported the alderman saying.
King, whose term ends in June, is not running for re-election but has not indicated plans to resign. A number of candidates are running to replace King, including Mississippi House Rep. Jeramey Anderson, a Democrat who began his campaign in November with the theme, “Restoring Hope.”
Absentee voting for the party primaries for Moss Point’s municipal elections, as in other cities statewide, will begin next Monday, Feb. 22, and run until April 3 for the April 6 primary election. The general election will follow on June 8. The Sun Herald provides a list of mayoral candidates for Moss Point and other coastal towns on its website.