MOSS POINT, Miss. (WLOX) - Moss Point Mayor Mario King and his wife Natasha appeared in federal court Friday morning, where they were arraigned on over a dozen charges of wire fraud.
After the hearing, which was closed to the public, the Kings walked out of the courthouse in downtown Gulfport, following behind his three-person legal team.
“We look forward to our day in court,” said the mayor when asked for a comment.
Before climbing into a BMW528i, the mayor added: “Litigation is a tool that I believe everybody should use the way it should be used.”
The 14-count indictment was filed on April 28, 2020, alleging that Mario and Natasha solicited funds beginning in 2018 from a benefit gala but did not use that money for its intended purpose, which was to support a mental health program for Moss Point School District.
The benefit gala was being hosted by the King’s personal business, Rejuvenate LLC, which they formed together in April 2018. Authorities allege in the indictment that the business’ bank account had no activity on it other than monthly statements until December 2018, when the couple announced plans for the benefit gala.
The invitation to the event, which was to be held on March 23, 2019, stated that the “gala honors and supports organizations that are making a difference for the mental health community. Proceeds support the efforts of mental health in the City of Moss Point with a focus on the Moss Point School District, converting spaces into a therapeutic and innovative learning environment.”
Just weeks after the gala took place on April 8, 2019, Natasha King allegedly used a business credit card from Rejuvenate to make a $2,000 down payment on a Cadillac XTC. The indictment says she returned that vehicle 12 days later and soon after received a refund for the down payment, which she deposited into the couple’s personal checking account.
On April 16, 2019, the Kings reportedly paid off two credit cards - one in the amount of $270 and the other for $475 - which were used to purchase a Biewer terrier in December 2018. The money for those credit card payments was also was taken from gala funds deposited in the Rejuvenate bank account, states the indictment.
On May 1, 2019, Natasha reportedly withdrew $1,000 from the Rejuvenate business account that contained the proceeds from the gala. That same day, the indictment says she took another $2,700 in cash from the couple’s joint checking account, which included $2,000 that was raised at the gala.
On May 12, 2019, the indictment said Natasha purchased a Volvo, paying $3,700 down on it. Authorities say $3,000 of that money was from the gala’s proceeds.
Prior to the gala, the couple appeared together on WLOX television and described the event, saying that funds from the gala would be used to create safe spaces for mental health counseling in the city’s school district.
However, state and federal agencies allege that the Kings used some of the money to pay for the gala and did not give the remaining proceeds to the school district.
Some of the funds were used to pay for the cost of the Gala, but the remaining proceeds did not go to the Moss Point School District, said authorities.
Instead, it is alleged that the couple spent the money on various personal expenses, including the down payment on a new car, cash withdrawals, and paying credit card charges that were used to purchase a pet.
The Moss Point School District released a statement Friday in response to the news of the indictment:
“The charity is not affiliated with the district nor recognized as an official partner of the district. We have not been contacted by any law enforcement but will cooperate with all law enforcement inquires.
After news broke Friday that Mario and Natasha King were being charged on 14 federal counts, city alderman Wayne Lennep released a statement to WLOX:
“The Mayor called me Thursday evening and told me he was being indicted. He said he did not know the charges, but he had not knowingly done anything illegal. He said he was going to the courthouse Friday morning to hear the charges against him. I have not seen the actual indictment, but from what I have seen in news reports, the charges appear to be personal and not related to the City or city government. Still, this is incredibly disappointing.
I am praying for our city to be able to function and move forward together. As for the mayor, he will have an opportunity to make his case. Either way, I have faith in the justice system. The prosecutor and auditor are professionals just doing their jobs. We must let process work. No one is above the law, but an indictment is only a charge and is not evidence of guilt. Everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty.”
Throughout Friday, some Moss Point residents inquired as to whether or not this indictment meant Mario King would have to resign from his office as mayor of Moss Point. The Board of Aldermen released a joint statement Friday evening addressing such concerns:
“After reviewing the indictment, it appears that all counts are related to Mayor King’s private LLC and the use of proceeds received for the mayor’s private Gala. There are no allegations related to his office of Mayor of Moss Point. The cost of the mayor’s defense will be solely on the Mayor and will not involve any taxpayer dollars!
We are aware that the citizens are concerned as to how this indictment will affect City Government and whether or not the Mayor will be able to maintain his office. The mayor’s seat is not vacated as a result of the indictment. According to Mississippi Code Annotated, Section 25-5-1, he cannot be removed from office unless he is convicted of or enters a plea of guilty or nolo contendere for a felony. At this stage, he has been arraigned, but there has been no plea. It is our understanding this could be set for trial as early as September of this year.
While this matter is pending, we want to assure all citizens that the City business will continue as usual. There is a Mayor Pro Temp in place, in the event the mayor is unable to fulfill any of his duties. The Mayor Pro Temp has been and will continue to be kept up to date on all current issues in City Hall and will be ready to step in, if and when, it is needed. Likewise, the Board of Aldermen will remain involved in all city activities, to the extent allowed by law, and will make certain that the City moves forward despite today’s news.
There has been no indication that the Mayor intends to resign as a result of the indictment, and the Board of Aldermen cannot force a resignation. We understand that many citizens have expressed concerns over the Mayor staying in office due to the nature of the allegations, but we would like to reiterate what was stated by the U.S. Attorney, Michael Hurst in today’s press release from the Department of Justice, ‘the public is reminded that an indictment is merely a charge and should not be considered as evidence of guilt. Every defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.’ The Board will do all we can to make ourselves available to the public and to oversee the operations of the City.”
The defendants appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Walker at 10 a.m. Friday for their initial appearance and arraignment. The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Sul Ozerden.
If convicted, they face up to five years on the conspiracy charge and up to 20 years on each of the 13 wire fraud charges. Each of the fourteen counts carries a maximum fine of $250,000.
To read the full indictment against the Kings, click HERE.