Election official pleads guilty to misusing pandemic money

Published 4:15 pm Tuesday, January 10, 2023

An election commissioner in Mississippi’s largest county has pleaded guilty to fraud and embezzlement charges related to misuse of pandemic relief money from a group funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Hinds County Election Commissioner Toni Johnson, 37, of Clinton, entered the guilty plea Monday as jury selection was beginning for her trial, court records show. She will have to resign and will no longer be able to serve in any office handling public money, according to the state auditor’s office.

Johnson was chairwoman the Hinds County Election Commission in 2020 and 2021. According to the state auditor’s office, she used COVID-19 response money from the Center for Tech and Civic Life to buy two 85-inch (216-centimeter) televisions and personal protective equipment, which she purportedly had delivered to her own home and one other private home.

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The auditor said that to conceal the scheme, Johnson allegedly bought smaller, less expensive TVs as replacements for the larger ones bought by the Hinds County Election Commission.

In the plea deal, Johnson is expected to avoid prison time. Court records show prosecutors will recommend a 20-year sentence, with 15 of those years suspended and five to be spent under supervised probation. Johnson will have to pay restitution of more than $24,000.

Two other people previously pleaded guilty to charges in this case in Hinds County, including bribery of a public official and conspiracy to make fraudulent statements to the government. They await sentencing.