Ben Allen is a former city councilman and president of Downtown Jackson Partners, which oversees the downtown business-improvement district.
Photo by Trip Burns.
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — An indictment says the head of a downtown Jackson development group misused money in an investigation that has also led to two high-ranking employees of the Mississippi Audit Department being charged with hindering prosecution.
Ben Allen, executive director of Downtown Jackson Partners, was charged with stealing nearly $55,000 of the nonprofit group's money and misusing another $190,000 in a 10-count Hinds County indictment unsealed Wednesday.
Allen, a former Jackson city councilman, was released on $50,000 bail. A lawyer for Allen couldn't immediately be reached for comment. Allen faces up to 165 years in jail and up to $55,000 in fines.
The Executive Committee of Downtown Jackson Partners issued a statement denying Allen did anything wrong, saying the committee "intends not to simply defend against these baseless allegations, but to vigorously fight to ensure that Mr. Allen is fully cleared in this matter."
"The charges lack any basis in fact and are instead an apparent effort to tarnish the reputation of one of Jackson's most dedicated and law-abiding public servants," the committee said.
In a statement Wednesday, state Auditor Stacey Pickering called on Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith to dismiss charges against the Audit Department's Investigations Division Director David Huggins and Deputy Director Karei McDonald. Pickering called Smith's actions "unprecedented, unfounded and beyond explanation."
Indictments unsealed last week allege Huggins and McDonald hindered Hinds County's investigation of Allen. Both are free on $1,500 bail.
"In a rush to further his own agenda or personal vendettas, he led a Hinds County grand jury to take unjust and wrong actions," Pickering said of Smith, expressing confidence Huggins and McDonald would be cleared.
"This is an ongoing investigation, and Mr. Pickering is welcome to come forward, as soon as he is available, to testify under oath," Smith told The Clarion-Ledger on Wednesday. The newspaper first reported on some of the allegations against Allen and Downtown Jackson Partners in 2014.
Downtown Jackson Partners assesses a fee on property owners in a 65-block area to promote the city's center. The group reported nearly $1 million in revenue in the year that ended Sept. 30, 2014, paying Allen $150,000.
The indictment says Allen improperly took a 1989 Chevrolet pickup worth $3,500, got the group to spend $2,725 on repairs and $1,810 for insurance and taxes. It also alleges that the group improperly paid $1,738 toward the personal cellphone bill of Allen and his wife and improperly paid $45,000 toward Allen's credit card bills.
Allen is also charged with improperly funneling $86,000 collected from others through Downtown Jackson Partners to Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber's inauguration. Allen is charged with both embezzlement and improper campaign contributions for that action. He's also charged with $40,000 in improperly authorized donations and with defrauding government for $65,745 the group took to create a failed business incubator.
Downtown Jackson Partners said the allegations came from a former employee who leaders say stole $40,000 from the group. Downtown Jackson Partners said it's suing the employee in a civil lawsuit in Madison County to get the money back and alleged that Smith hasn't taken any action to prosecute the employee despite a criminal complaint last year to the Jackson Police Department. The committee said Downtown Jackson Partners' board made its own investigation and found no other crimes.
The board said Pickering also investigated the situation. During that inquiry, Pickering said Smith subpoenaed files in October but agreed to allow Pickering's employees to continue their work, only to later express dissatisfaction.
"From that point forward, DA Smith began contacting, coaching and ultimately calling OSA staff before the Hinds County grand jury," Pickering said.
Years before going to work for the state Audit Department, Huggins was the Mississippi commissioner of public safety.