Moss Point Mayor Mario King and his wife, Natasha, are set to enter guilty pleas in a federal case accusing them of wire fraud and conspiracy charges.
The couple is set to plead guilty to one felony charge in federal court in Gulfport on Feb. 24, prompting at least one city official to call for the mayor to step down immediately.
“This case has been one of several unwanted distractions that have hindered our city ‘s progress during this term,” Moss Point Alderman Wayne Lennep said. “For the sake of the good citizens of Moss Point, and the well-being of the city, I think the mayor should resign immediately.”
On Friday, city officials called for the mayor’s immediate resignation upon entering a guilty plea. In case his resignation is not a part of any plea agreement, the Board of Alderman asked City Attorney Amy St. Pe’ to send a letter to the attorney general’s office requesting the action.
“The Board believes that confidence in an elected official is destroyed when he is convicted of a crime,” the Board said in a statement.
The Kings informed prosecutors of their intent to enter guilty pleas on the eve of a hearing Thursday over the couple’s desire to delay the plea deadline. Prosecutors objected to the extension.
The couple had until Thursday to change their pleas. They were set to go to trial on the criminal calendar beginning March 1.
If a defendant cooperates with the government and enters into a plea agreement, prosecutors usually recommend a lighter sentence, though a judge ultimately makes that ruling based on sentencing guidelines.
Using donations for down payments on cars, other items
A federal grand jury indicted the Kings in June on 13 counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit fraud. The indictment was unsealed a month later.
The charges include allegations that the couple bought a Volvo and pedigreed dog with money they raised for mental health services in Moss Point.
The Kings are accused of defrauding contributors of money meant to primarily benefit Moss Point youth from late 2018 or early 2019 until May 2019.
According to the indictment, some of the money that was raised covered the cost of the Mayor’s Gala — which was promoted as a fundraiser — but the couple allegedly used some of the donations on personal expenses.
In April 2018, the Kings created Rejuvenate LLC, and Natasha King opened a bank account for the company at Hancock Bank, according to the indictment.
The charges detail mental health contributions the Kings spent from the Rejuvenate account:
Here’s a look at some of the allegations:
- On April 8, 2019, Natasha King used a Rejuvenate debit card for a $2,000 down payment on a Cadillac XTC. She returned the car and CarMax sent her a check for the down payment, which she then deposited in the Kings’ personal checking account.
- On May 1, 2019, Natasha King withdrew $1,000 cash from the Rejuvenate account and $2,700 from the couple’s checking account and used the total for a down payment on a Volvo, with $3,000 of the total being Rejuvenate funds.
- On April 16, 2019, the Kings paid off $745 on two credit cards with money from the Rejuvenate account. The payments represented charges on the accounts for a Biewer Terrier dog that they had bought months earlier from a Hattiesburg animal medical center.
The allegations of wire fraud are related to donations transferred from PayPal to the Rejuvenate account, plus withdrawals from the account for personal expenses.
After the couple was first indicted and went to court, Mario King said he looked forward to his day in court.
The Kings pleaded not guilty at the time of their arrests.
The charges carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
Who will serve as Moss Point mayor?
In June 2017, Moss Point residents elected Mario King, a Democrat, as mayor at the age of 30. He announced earlier this year that he would not seek another term in office.
His tenure in office has been marked by controversy, including a domestic violence charge involving his wife that was ultimately dropped after she refused to testify, and various lawsuits.
King has also received praise for some of his work, such as taking swift action to set a curfew in Moss Point to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19 amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Once Mario King pleads guilty to a felony offense, a judge could order his immediate removal from office.
State law does not allow anyone convicted of certain felony crimes to serve in public office.
An attorney general’s opinion provided by attorney St. Pe’ says that an elected official, in this case King, is not automatically ineligible to hold office upon entering a guilty plea if the crime is something other than public corruption or peculation, also known as misappropriation of funds.
Another option, according to the opinion, is for the attorney general to request his removal from office and a judge orders the action.
If the mayor’s seat is vacated, Mayor Pro-Tem Robert Byrd would serve until the board votes on who they want to serve for the remainder of the term that ends in June. Byrd could still be appointed to serve in that position.
State law does not require a special election is there is less than six months left in a term.
‘Citizens want to leave this episode behind.’
Lennep said it’s time for the city “to put this behind us.”
“The city needs to move on, mend relationships and heal as a community,” Lennep said. “I believe our citizens want to leave this episode behind and work with us to move the city forward. I want to help make that happen.”
Mayor Pro-tem Byrd also addressed the matter.
“If called on, I’m ready to step in and continue to run the operations of the city,” Byrd said. “We need to have the least disruption of the duties of the city employees as possible.”
King sent an email to employees after new broke about his plea to let them know he would be making a statement after he goes to court next week.