Mississippi city councilwoman reaches plea deal over comments reportedly offering cash prizes in ‘get out vote’ raffle

Published 5:39 am Tuesday, August 15, 2023

by Taylor Vance, Mississippi Today
August 14, 2023

Tupelo Councilwoman Nettie Davis on Monday reached an agreement with local prosecutors and a state judge to plead guilty to a misdemeanor count of violating an election law, but she will avoid the penalty of being removed from office.

Senior Circuit Judge Paul Funderburk signed off on a “non-adjudication” agreement that accepts Davis’ guilty plea, requires her to pay $5,000 with $4,500 suspended, pay $227.75 in court fees and avoid a public trial.

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Jim Waide, Davis’ attorney, told Mississippi Today that he wishes state prosecutors would have never brought the charge forward against his client, but he believes Monday’s plea deal with prosecutors was appropriate.

“Once the charges were brought, we didn’t have any choice but to accept an agreement where she wouldn’t be removed from office,” Waide said.

Her criminal case stemmed from comments she made in a 2021 “get out the vote” rally encouraging people to vote in the municipal elections. In her recorded comments, she said if voters brought back an “I voted” sticker, their name would be placed in a raffle for cash prizes.

The video did not record Davis advocating for any specific candidate or a particular political party. The raffle also never took place.

John Weddle, a northeast Mississippi district attorney, alleged Davis’ comments violated a law that prohibits anyone from offering “any prize, cash award or other items of value to be raffled, drawn for, played for or contested for in order to encourage a person to vote or to refrain from voting in any election.”

The penalty for violating the statute is only a misdemeanor and carries no jail time. But if the person convicted is an elected official, like Davis, the law calls for them to be removed from office.

Weddle, a Republican, began investigating Davis’ comments shortly after the video circulated online. He, along with Secretary of State Michael Watson, issued a press release just two days after her comments saying prosecutors would investigate the remarks.

The district attorney’s office presented Davis’ case to a grand jury, and it returned an indictment, sparking community leaders to decry Weddle’s prosecution of the local figure, a Democrat and civil rights veteran, and claim the efforts were politically motivated.

Those calls grew even more acute after Mississippi Today reported that a Republican candidate for state Senate, Lauren Smith, appeared to acknowledge in a video that she had voted in a Lee County district outside of her legal residence.

Smith’s political opponent and an independent election attorney believed Smith’s remarks were an admission she broke the law. Smith rejected that claim and said she did not violate any statute.

It’s unclear what will happen to Smith. Waide attempted to subpoena Smith’s testimony for Davis’ trial, but Monday’s agreement means she will not have to testify in the criminal case.

Weddle appears to have filed a sealed motion with the court, but it’s unclear what the motion specifically states. On behalf of Davis, Waide filed court documents saying Weddle’s sealed motion was an effort to block Smith from testifying in the case.

Waide alleged in the court document that Weddle was selectively prosecuting local candidates based on race and political party affiliation.

“Evidence will establish that the District Attorney has known since April 2023 of this misdemeanor election law violation by a white Republican candidate,” Waide’s motion reads. “The District Attorney has not announced any intent to prosecute this misdemeanor election law violation by a white Republican candidate.”

Weddle did not respond to a request for comment.

Incumbent state Sen. Chad McMahan defeated Smith in the Republican primary on August 8 by garnering around 55% of the vote.

A Lee County citizen has also filed an affidavit against McMahan accusing him of “voter intimidation.” A judge has yet to rule on whether the allegation meets the the threshold for a criminal act, and McMahan claims the allegations are a “political stunt.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.