Former ed director indicted on charges of bribery, fraud

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A Madison County woman who is the former executive director of Mississippi State Department of Education is among four individuals facing charges of conspiracy, bribery, fraud and more in a case targeting contractors.

The woman, Cerissa Renfroe Neal, 45, has been charged in a federal indictment with conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and bribery, United States Attorney Mike Hurst said Thursday. Neal appeared in court for her arraignment on Aug. 19 and was released on conditions of bond pending trial.

David B. Hunt, 54, of Jackson, Tenn., Joseph Kyles, 51, of Memphis, and Lambert Martin, 59, also of Memphis, were all charged as well.

The indictment, returned by a federal grand jury in February and recently unsealed, charges Neal, along with her co-defendants Kyles, Hunt and Martin, with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and seven counts of wire fraud. The indictment also charges Neal and Kyles with one count of money laundering. Neal and Kyles are each also charged with three counts of bribery.

“Those who defraud the public’s trust will find themselves standing before a court of law to answer for their wrongs. Public corruption erodes faith in our democracy and decays the very soul of our form of government. Bringing to justice corrupt public officials has always been and remains a high priority of this office, and a personal mission of mine, and we will continue to pursue corruption wherever it may lead,” Hurst said.

Hurst made the announcement with officials from a variety of other state and federal agencies including Special Agent in Charge Michelle A. Sutphin with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Mississippi, Special Agent in Charge Neil E. Sanchez with the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Inspector General, and Mississippi State Auditor Shad White.

“I applaud the investigative work in this case and that of our federal partners,” Auditor White said. 

“In 2017, the auditor’s office provided information about these defendants to federal authorities, so I’m grateful for the work of those investigators and former Auditor Pickering as well.”

The indictment alleges that Neal, using her position with the education department, would split contract requests from one contract into multiple, smaller contracts, in order to avoid threshold amounts that would trigger a formal, competitive bidding process. Neal would entertain and advocate for a bid for the contract from one of the three conspirators’ businesses, including The Kyles Company in Memphis, Doc Imaging which was alternatively identified as Hunt Services in Jackson, Tenn., and Educational Awareness in Memphis. 

The indictment goes on to allege that in order to meet the Department of Education requirement that such informal bids have at least two competing vendor quotes for comparison, Neal would obtain false and inflated quotes by herself and from the other conspirators, designed to make the intended conspirator’s business the lower bid and to guarantee the award of the contract. 

The indictment alleges that conspirators coordinated their submissions to the Department of Education as well as the sharing of the resulting contract payments. After the Department of Education made payment on the rigged contract to the conspirator-owned business, the winning bidder shared some of the money with conspirators, in return for their assistance in rigging the bid and winning the contract. 

Officials allege that Neal received more than $42,000 over the course of the scheme and Kyles, Hunt, and Martin, through their respective businesses, garnered amounts believed to be over $650,000 from the state of Mississippi, including federal funds granted by the U.S. Department of Education to Mississippi.

Hunt, Kyles and Martin were to appear for arraignment today (Sept. 10) before United States Magistrate Judge F. Keith Ball in Jackson at 2:30 p.m.

If convicted, each defendant faces maximum penalties of 20 years in prison for each count charged for conspiracy and wire fraud and 10 years in prison for each count of money laundering and bribery. Each count also can merit a fine of up to $250,000.

The case has been assigned to Senior U.S. District Judge Tom S. Lee for trial.

Hurst commended the work of the Special Agents of the FBI’s Jackson Division and the Office of the Inspector General, United States Department of Education, as well as the Mississippi State Auditor’s Office and the Mississippi State Attorney General’s Office, who investigated the case. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Theodore Cooperstein.s


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