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Ben Allen back at DJP but agency’s course unclear

Ben Allen returned to running Downtown Jackson Partners Monday, but whether he stays on the job as he fights charges he stole and embezzled money from the agency is uncertain.

For now, Allen is calling the shots at the quasi-public entity responsible for administering downtown Jackson’s Business Improvement District and promoting downtown as a work, live and play destination. “No decision has been made officially,” said Robert Gibbs, the business organization’s attorney and appointed spokesman since the indictment of Allen last week on charges he took $55,000 of the group’s money and misused another $190,000.

Allen is a former Jackson alderman who took over as DJP president in 2008 and is paid $150,000 annually. Allen is free on $50,000 bond. He faces up to 165 years in jail and up to $55,000 in fines

Operational control of Downtown Jackson Partners, or DJP, is up to its Executive Committee. The board had not met by Wednesday morning. “I don’t know when a decision will be made,” Gibbs said in an interview Tuesday.

“Until then it will be business as usual.”

The Executive Committee says Allen is innocent and has vowed to fight to ensure he is “fully cleared.” But don’t take that to mean DJP will cover his defense costs from the approximately $1 million it draws from a tax on property owners in the 65-block Business Improvement District. There’s a difference between fighting for someone and paying his legal costs, said Steve Davis, a downtown architect and the Executive Committee’s vice chairman.
Gibbs stressed that he represents DJP, not its indicted president.

The Executive Committee says its faith in Allen’s innocence rests with an investigation it did that found no wrongdoing by Allen. The agency executive has “conducted himself with complete integrity and honesty,” the committee said in a press statement.

The statement emphasized the committee “has trust… Ben Allen will be exonerated of all charges.”

Gibbs, meanwhile, said he will advise the board on how to keep the agency going during Allen’s legal troubles. He isn’t sharing just what the advice will be, however.

“I have to review everything as an attorney and make a legal call,” he said. “I will speak to the client on the proper course of action to be followed.”

That call could include whether Allen will still have access to DJP funds, including use of its credit cards.

Reacting in the hours after the indictments secured by Hinds District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith, the Executive Committee called the action “an unjustified attack” on all of downtown Jackson’s businesses and residents.

Further, Smith’s action is an apparent effort to “tarnish the reputation of one of Jackson’s most dedicated and law-abiding public servants,” the committee said.

Allen’s arrest is part of an investigation that has also led to two high-ranking employees of the Mississippi Audit Department being charged with hindering prosecution.

In a statement March 9, state Auditor Stacey Pickering called on 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 March 7 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.
Smith said Pickering is welcome to testify under oath anytime, according to published reports.

The indictment says Allen improperly took a 1989 Chevrolet pickup worth $3,500, got DJP to spend $2,725 on repairs and $1,810 for insurance and taxes. It also alleges that DJP 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. He 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 that DJP received to create a failed business incubator.

DJP’s Executive Committee 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 DA 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.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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