On February 18, a Mississippi grand jury indicted a Hinds county election commissioner and local business owner on counts of fraud, embezzlement, and bribery. A local business owner was also indicted for bribery, and fraud, and conspiracy. The duo are alleged to owe Mississippi taxpayers $250,000, which the State Auditor says was taken from $1.9 million in Covid-19 response grant money awarded the county by the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), an organization funded by Mark Zuckerberg. Financial audits now are showing election fraud in private grant money.
The indictment alleges that Election Commissioner Toni Johnson and two county residents were involved in contracts for election services that were never provided. These arrests come six months after local Mississippi WLBT news launched an investigative report last August into how Hinds County election officials actually spent private grant funds.
WLBT gave a full accounting from state grant records of how funds were spent for expensive items such as: two 85-inch smart TVs with subwoofers, two projectors, a refrigerator, and a microwave. The expensive televisions, projectors, refrigerator, and microwave—allegedly bought to be used by the government—never arrived at the office or were substituted for less expensive items. WLBT reported:
[H]undreds of thousands of dollars in contracts were awarded to firms for work that appeared to be outside their scopes of service, while other contractors brought on appeared to have ties with county officials.
The county paid Apogee Group II for Covid-19 election services—such as cleaning, testing, and voting machines. The company, a business registered for motion picture and video production, dissolved after the election in November 2021. Cedric Cornelius, the owner of Apogee Group II, was also charged in the indictment. The county also hired a beauty salon, New Beginnings Hair & Fashion, to provide cleaning and voter official training.
Johnson bragged on social media that she had “secured a 1.9 million grant for safe elections during Covid-19.” Hinds County received over a million from CTCL. But not all the money came from CTCL. Hinds County also had received $25,000 from the U.S.C. Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, which was founded by a former Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The indictment reveals the failure to keep accounting in election administration, particularly in the last election when private money was used. All the private grant money was placed in the same account as taxpayer funds.
In 2020, the Election Commission meeting minutes made no mention of the CTCL grant that was awarded in September 2020. Yet local news already had reported concerns over misuse of the grants throughout 2020, where another Hinds County District 2 Election Commissioner wanted to use the CTCL money—which was advertised to be used for Covid-19 response, such as personal protective equipment—for a tennis tournament.
In 2020, voters raised concerns over the propriety of CTCL grant money being distributed across the country. In Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin, voters filed lawsuits, alleging undue private influence on elections. Running elections has been, and should continue to be, a taxpayer funded effort with proper public scrutiny and oversight of the budget. But the private groups found a legal loophole that many legislatures now are seeking to close. Private money has the potential for kickbacks and conflicts of interest. The private grantmaker CTCL also used a questionable contract where local election officials signed away power over the government budget, by agreeing with CTCL’s condition “not to reduce the budget.”
In March, Mississippi passed HB 1365 a ban on private funding of elections. Concerns about this type of election fraud is why many states—Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, North Dakota, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas—already have passed laws regulating private money in elections. But many state governors—Louisiana, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin—have unwisely vetoed efforts in their states.
The divide has largely been along party lines, with Republicans supporting the reforms and Democrats opposed, but this issue should not be a partisan issue.
Who knows where the next funds could come from and how a future donor could cherry-pick which local election offices to send the money, without limited oversight?
Back in 2020, National Public Radio glowingly praised such private funding, reporting that it “saved the 2020 election.” Now, financial audits show the opposite, and election grant reforms are both common sense and a good use of taxpayer cents. In this case, misuse of private funds cost Hinds County taxpayers $250,000. The haste with which private grants were accepted without proper review and transparency means the voters will be the ones footing the bill. Over a year after the 2020 election, audits show those private grants given with little oversight ended up costing the people the most.