Attorney General

Trump’s tax returns released after long fight with Congress

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www.wxxv25.com – Associated Press – 2022-12-30 08:12:51

They are likely to offer the clearest picture yet of his finances during his time in office.

Trump, known for building skyscrapers and hosting a reality TV show before winning the White House, did give some limited details about his holdings and income on mandatory disclosure forms. He has promoted his wealth in the annual financial statements he provides to banks to secure loans and to financial magazines to justify his place on rankings of the world’s billionaires.

Trump’s longtime accounting firm has since disavowed the statements, and New York Letitia James has 

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Embattled DA in Curtis Flowers case headed to runoff in circuit judge race

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Embattled DA in Curtis Flowers case headed to runoff in circuit judge race

Longtime prosecutor Doug Evans, known for trying Curtis Flowers six times for murder with convictions that were later overturned, is headed for a Nov. 29 runoff for a circuit court judge seat.

Evans earned the second-most votes Tuesday in five-person election and will face top vote-getter Winona Municipal Court Judge Alan “Devo” Lancaster because neither candidate garnered 50% of the vote.

The 5th Circuit Court district includes Attala, Carroll, Choctaw, Montgomery, Grenada, Webster and Winston counties. The winner will succeed Judge George Mitchell, who died in April.

As a circuit court judge, Evans could hear criminal cases in the same district where the said he prevented Black people from serving as jurors, including in Flowers’ case. 

Evans, who has been the district attorney of the district for over 30 years, first tried Flowers in 1997 for the killings of four people at the Tardy Furniture store in Winona. 

Evans secured four penalty convictions for Flowers, but those were overturned by and federal courts. In two trials, a jury didn’t reach a unanimous verdict. 

READ MORE: Curtis Flowers files federal lawsuit against Mississippi DA Doug Evans for misconduct in wrongful prosecution

The U.S Supreme Court overturned Flowers’ conviction in 2019, ruling Evans barred Black jurors in the case. 

Evans recused himself after the , which represented Flowers, asked for him to be from the case. Lynn Fitch was appointed as the lead prosecutor.

In September 2020, Fitch’s office dropped charges against Flowers after he spent 23 years in prison, most of it on death row at the at Parchman. 

In 2021, Flowers sued Evans in federal court for misconduct, which Evans has denied. U.S. District Court Judge Neal Biggers Jr. ordered the case stayed until May 1, 2023.

Other candidates in the 5th District Circuit Court race were Ackerman attorney Kasey Burney Young, Kosciusko attorney Doug Crosby and Louisville attorney Zachary Madison. 

Lancaster is a partner at the Lancaster Taylor Law Firm in Winona. He has been a municipal judge in Winona since 2010 and attorney for Montgomery County Economic Development since 1986. 

This article first on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

USM should repay welfare funds, says Duff

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IHL Board president says USM should repay welfare funds

STARKVILLE — Tom Duff, the president of the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees, said in an interview Thursday that the University of Southern Mississippi should repay $5 million in welfare funds used to construct a volleyball stadium. 

Though the has, so far, opted not to include the volleyball stadium – the single largest known purchase in the sprawling welfare scandal – in a civil suit that attempts to claw back the funds, Duff said he thinks the federal government will make the state recoup the money. 

“I could be wrong, that might not happen,” he said. “But that’s probably what should happen, because USM did it incorrectly.” 

Appointed by former Gov. Phil Bryant, Duff has served on the IHL board, which governs Mississippi’s eight public universities, since 2015. Duff, a billionaire, is also one of USM’s most prominent alums and a high-dollar donor to universities across Mississippi.

Duff said that when he and other IHL board members signed off on the lease agreement that provided the funds in 2017, they did not know that they were approving the construction of the volleyball stadium because the project was listed as an item on the consent agenda. Trustees typically approve consent agenda items in one fell swoop; sometimes, Duff admitted, without reading them. 

“They should’ve, and I probably should’ve, but I didn’t see it,” he said. 

Duff went on to say that he didn’t know the volleyball stadium – a pet project of former NFL quarterback Brett Favre – was under construction in Hattiesburg until he drove past it one day. After he learned about the new facility, he said he reached out to then-U.S. Mike Hurst and State Auditor Shad White. 

“I live there, and I didn’t even know the building was built until I drove by and said, ‘What is that?’” Duff said. “We didn’t approve a building, we didn’t know about a building. It all got done kind of around everybody – and improperly.”

“It’s not something that should ever have happened,” he added. 

The comments came hours after USM announced in a five-paragraph statement that the university engaged in the lease agreement “in good faith.” It also announced that it would make the volleyball stadium, known as the Wellness Center, and other unspecified campus facilities available for the Mississippi Department of Human Services to provide services in for an initial five-year period. 

In 2017, the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation signed a lease with the Mississippi Community Education Center, Nancy New’s nonprofit, for proposed programming and services that USM now acknowledges were never provided. 

“Although MCEC shared projections of planned programming with the University, its actual utilization of the facilities did not align with those projections,” USM said in the statement. 

USM did not say in the statement if it intends to repay the welfare funds. Despite repeated requests, university officials have not granted interviews to Mississippi Today regarding the use of welfare dollars for the volleyball stadium.

Duff said he saw the university’s statement, but did not finish reading it, as he was flying to Starkville for the opening of a new music building at Mississippi State University. 

“When it started off with all the legalese, I glazed over,” he said. “Right’s right, and wrong’s wrong. That’s just the way I look at it.”

A subsidiary of IHL, USM must seek board approval for contracts worth more than $250,000. 

After much back and forth between officials from USM, Mississippi Department of Human Services, Nancy New and Brett Favre, USM’s former president, Rodney Bennett, brought the lease agreement before the IHL board.

IHL had already approved a $1 lease between USM and the Athletic Foundation, but this lease was different, because it had the $5 million sublease between the foundation and Mississippi Community Education Center attached to it.

READ MORE: ‘Timeline: How an NFL star, state officials and a university funded the USM volleyball stadium’ 

The Attorney General’s Office reviewed and approved the amended lease for IHL before it was placed on the agenda. 

“Everything has an attorney general opinion, but that doesn’t mean it’s smart or what you’re supposed to do,” Duff said. “I don’t care what the attorney general said, this was a stupid thing to do.” 

The IHL trustees approved the amended lease at its October 2017 meeting. 

The board’s meeting minutes state that the nonprofit’s funding for the project would come “via a Block Grant from the Mississippi Department of Human Services.”

The trustees who served on the board’s finance committee, Duff said, should have known about the project. Duff now chairs that committee, and he said the volleyball project didn’t go through IHL’s typical “expense checks.” 

“The finance committee should’ve known about the expenses but see, it didn’t go through any expense checks that we saw,” he said. “It went through the foundation. And the $5 million from Nancy went in and went out, I guess, to the contractor.” 

Duff’s comments are the most candid from IHL since the scandal broke.

In 2020, IHL commissioner Alfred Rankins previously told the state auditor that trustees only approved the lease between USM and the athletic foundation, not the $5 million sub-lease from MCEC, Mississippi Today reported. Rankins called White’s audit inaccurate. 

“IHL cannot claim ignorance of this fact,” White responded. “That assertion flies in the face of your own minutes. If IHL objected to the arrangement with MCEC, then the time to voice that objection was when the matter came up for a vote, not after the State Auditor pointed it out.”

Had USM gone through the proper channels, Duff said that IHL would have funded the construction of the volleyball stadium. He drew a connection between the volleyball stadium and the new music building at MSU as he left for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. 

“I’m glad they (MSU) can build the building,” he said, “which they built legitimately.”

Editor’s note: Mississippi Today Editor-in-Chief Adam Ganucheau’s mother signed off on the language of a lease agreement to construct a University of Southern Mississippi volleyball stadium. Read more about that here.

This article first on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Some leaders ignore health care woes at Hobnob Mississippi

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State’s health care woes ignored by some, but not all at annual Hobnob

“Only positive Mississippi spoken here,” a phrase coined by former Gov. Kirk Fordice, was the theme for the most part of the politicians at the annual Hobnob event sponsored by the ’s Economic Council.

But two politicians – Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney – devoted much of their speech at the Mississippi Economic Council’s annual Hobnob to the state’s troubled system and the financial difficulties that many of the state’s hospitals are facing.

“Would you locate (a business) in a state that you don’t have health care?” Chaney asked of the crowd of about 1,000 primarily business leaders gathered at the Mississippi Coliseum to hear from the state’s political leadership. “I don’t think you would.”

Hosemann said the Senate would be looking at health care issues during the upcoming session. He also said the legislative leadership should not be scared away from efforts to improve health care by “that X word.”

Hosemann was presumably referring to expansion where, through primarily federal funds, the state could provide health care for about 200,000 poor , mostly people who work in jobs that do not offer health insurance. Hospitals have argued that expanding Medicaid like 38 other states have done would help them financially.

At the very least, the lieutenant governor said the state should extend Medicaid coverage for mothers from 60 days after giving birth to one year.

“How can we not be pro-life and pro-child at the same time?” asked Hosemann. “That does not make sense to me.”

While not definitively endorsing Medicaid expansion, Hosemann has said the state should look for the most efficient and inexpensive way to improve health care access in the state. Many argue that expanding Medicaid with the federal government paying most of the costs would be the best way to do that.

Chaney told reporters after the speech he supported Medicaid expansion and that he believes Hosemann does, too. But passing Medicaid expansion will be difficult with both Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker Philip Gunn in opposition.

Reeves kept his speech positive, not mentioning health care at all.

But after the speech, he reiterated to reporters his opposition to Medicaid expansion.

“I remain opposed to expanding Obamacare in Mississippi …” Reeves said. “No doubt we’ve seen certain health care institutions in our state and across the country struggling, due to leadership decisions that were made in those specific instances. The pandemic certainly didn’t make it any easier.”

Reeves said a solution to Mississippi’s dire health care issues is doing away with the state’s certificate of need (CON) requirements. CON laws regulate approval of major projects or expansions for health care facilities, aiming to control health care costs by reducing duplicative services and restricting where new facilities can be built and operated. Mississippi and 34 other states have varying CON laws.

Reeves said this thwarts competition, and “competition tends to drive down costs.”

“For instance, the doesn’t have to adhere to CON rules, but everyone else does,” Reeves said. “That doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.”

Opponents of removing the CON process say they fear it would result in even fewer hospitals and other health care facilities in poor and underpopulated areas.

On other topics, Reeves said Mississippi is in historically great financial shape and vowed to continue to push to eliminate the state’s personal income tax.

“You have my word that as long as I’m governor I will never stop fighting to fully eliminate the income tax in Mississippi,” Reeves said. He said this will make the state more competitive for economic development with Texas, Florida and Tennessee – states that have no personal income tax.

“Mississippi in virtually every category is climbing the national ladder,” Reeves said. He said the state has seen a record $3.5 billion in capital investment so far this year with “more capital investment in 2022 than we saw in the five years previous to me becoming governor.” He said the state has made great gains in K-12 education, including increasing the graduation rate from 72% to 88.5% during his time in office, now above the national average of 86.5%.

Reeves vowed to push for “good jobs with above-average wages,” and quoted from his first state-of-the-state address: “At the end of my time as governor, we will measure our success in the wages of our workers.”

According to a recent U.S. Census report, Mississippi has the nation’s lowest median household income at $46,511, compared to $67,521 nationally. Mississippi also has the highest poverty rate, with 18.8% of people living at or below the poverty level.

Chaney spent much of his speech criticizing both the University of Mississippi Medical Center and Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Mississippi for their inability to settle their contract dispute, which is impacting tens of thousands of Mississippians. People insured through Blue Cross have been out of network with UMMC since April 1.

“Both parties in this dispute are wrong,” Chaney said. “UMMC is asking for too much, and Blue Cross can give more.”

Chaney later told reporters that he believes the dispute could be settled, though, in the coming days.

Chaney said UMMC is “using (patients) as pawns for a money grab … On the other side Blue Cross is not right, either.”

The Republican insurance commissioner also told the crowd that UMMC has written a letter to a Medicaid managed care company demanding a higher reimbursement rate. If UMMC is not included in the network for the managed care company, this could impact health care for many of the Mississippians covered through Medicaid.

There are three companies – Magnolia, United and Molina – that have managed care contracts with the Mississippi Division of Medicaid. Under the contracts, the companies provide health care services for the Medicaid patients at a set rate paid to them by the state. Under that process, the companies reimburse the health care providers for the services provided to Medicaid recipients.

In response to Chaney’s comments, Dr. Alan Jones, associate vice chancellor for Clinical Affairs told Mississippi Today: “In the course of normal business operations, all health care institutions enter discussions with payor partners about new or current contracts, sometimes several months before the end of a current agreement. These routine engagements are necessary to ensure contracts meet the needs of our patients who are their health plan members.

He added, “Currently, we are in normal contract-related discussions with Magnolia Health Plan on the agreement that covers UMMC care provided to their managed Medicaid health plan members. Our intent is that these standardized discussions will soon yield a new agreement and we will continue our strong partnership with Magnolia and health care relationship with their members.”

Chaney also predicted that efforts to negotiate a lease agreement between the Greenwood LeFlore Hospital and UMMC would be unsuccessful and that the financially troubled hospital would close, negatively impacting health care throughout the Delta.

Chaney said the state’s health care issues must be solved if the state is to prosper.

Also speaking were Auditor Shad White, Secretary of State Michael Watson, Lynn Fitch, House Speaker Philip Gunn, Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner Andy Gipson and Treasurer David McRae.

Gipson, wearing his cowboy hat, sang a portion of the song “A Country Boy Can Survive” before praising the work of Mississippi farmers.

Watson, who has been mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate at some point – perhaps even against Reeves in the 2023 Republican primary – said, of next year’s election, “We need leaders who care more about Mississippi than their careers. I hope you help me elect those folks.”

While not being specific, Watson referenced some “tough times” possibly ahead for the state in terms of health care.

White said that as auditor, he gets to “look under the hood of Mississippi government,” and see what works and what doesn’t. He said the state’s workforce is the biggest issue he sees, and he offered four ideas to improve it.

“First, an earned income tax credit,” White said. “If you go from unemployed to employed, you get a tax cut … 29 other states have this … It’s one of the best things to get people off the couch and off the sidelines and working … There are some folks who want to just hand a bunch of money to poor people. That is not going to juice our economy.”

White said the state should use its federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families money – the source of a major fraud and misspending case White’s office uncovered – to fund the tax credits, as 20 other states do.

“Second, we’ve got to address brain drain,” White said. “From 2015-2019 we spent $1.5 to $2 billion on higher education, and we only kept 50% of the graduates in Mississippi.”

White said his office has a fellowship program that helps cover tuition for future auditors, provided they stay with his office for two years. He said this could be replicated for other professions statewide.

“Third, fatherlessness,” White said. He said too many children are growing up in broken homes and are not prepared to succeed when they become adults. He said, “There are all sorts of social maladies from not having engaged fathers in the home.” White said the Junior ROTC program in Jackson is an example of a program that helps with this issue – with retired military people mentoring youth. He said the program at JPS has a “100% graduation rate.”

Fourth, White said, “is the city of Jackson.”

“Jackson is our number-one talent magnet in this state,” White said, “with 30% of our graduates coming to work in .”

He said, “Jackson’s magnet is going to turn off unless we learn how to collect the garbage, keep the water clean and not be the per-capita homicide leader in the country.”

This article first on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

AG finds police killing of mentally-ill man justified

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Attorney general finds police killing of mentally ill man was justified

The Mississippi ’s Office has determined that the killing of a mentally ill man by a Forrest County sheriff’s deputy was justified, according to a two-sentence press release Monday morning. 

A team of Forrest County deputies arrived at the home of Maurice McCarty Hughes’s sister on the evening of July 14 with one responsibility: to pick up Hughes to take him to receive mental . Instead, a deputy shot and killed him after Hughes struck him with a hammer. 

job is to serve and protect,” said Cassandra Teal, who witnessed her brother’s shooting. “Not come and kill.”

Teal said an official from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, which handles the investigation each time a law enforcement officer kills someone in the , came to see the family on Friday to tell them that the attorney general had found Hughes’ shooting was justified. 

Hughes, who had just turned 45, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder about 25 years ago. Over the years, he sometimes stopped taking his medication, and a family member would go through the process to have him civilly committed to get treatment at a state hospital. 

Civil commitment is a legal process in which a court forces a mentally ill person into treatment. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are committed for psychiatric reasons each year. About 5,000 were committed in fiscal year 2021. 

Mississippi law requires sheriff’s deputies to pick up civil commitment patients and transport them to the state hospital or a holding location until a bed becomes available. That practice is common around the country, but in some places – like Tucson, Arizona – the officers responsible for commitment pickups receive specialized training and solely serve people with mental illness. 

Nationally, Black Americans are more likely than white Americans to access psychiatric services through involuntary commitment. 

Hughes had been committed about 16 times before, relatives said, always without incident. If he did not want to go with the deputies, they might tase him, but no one ever pulled a gun. 

Mississippi Today asked the attorney general’s office how staff reached the conclusion that the shooting was justified. 

“We considered all available evidence, the MBI investigative report, and applicable law to determine that there was no criminal conduct on the part of the officer involved,” said Michelle Williams, chief of staff for Attorney General Lynn Fitch.

Teal said that when she began the civil commitment proceedings in late June, she filled out paperwork explaining her brother’s state of mind and listed the items he had that could be used as weapons, including the hammer. 

All four deputies had received crisis intervention team (CIT) training, designed to equip police to understand mental illness and help people in crisis instead of using force. Nearly 700 law enforcement officers in Mississippi have participated in the training since mid-2018, according to the Department of Mental Health. But national studies have found no evidence that the training reduces the odds that an officer uses force against a mentally ill person. 

None of the deputies were wearing body cameras, so there is no footage of the shooting.

Hughes’ marks the first time the attorney general’s office reviewed a fatal shooting by law enforcement under a new law that took effect July 1. 

Previously, local district attorneys decided whether to present such cases to the grand jury and seek charges. Indictments of officers who kill people while on duty are rare in Mississippi and around the country. Officers are legally permitted to use lethal force if they fear for their lives, and the Supreme Court has held that judges and juries must defer to the perspective of the officer on the scene. 

Though it happened rarely in Mississippi, prosecutors could choose to release large amounts of information – including complete investigative files – after the grand jury declined to indict an officer. It’s not clear how much evidence the attorney general’s office will release in these cases.

Teal, an eyewitness to the shooting, said MBI officers never interviewed her. Instead, they asked her to provide a written statement shortly after she watched a deputy kill her brother. She was still in shock and later thought of other details she wanted to share. An officer told her he would call her to set up an interview, but he never did, she said. 

“I learned from that day, never believe nothing the police tell you,” Teal said. 

Mississippi Today has filed requests for records with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and the Attorney General’s Office to review the evidence collected during the investigation and understand how the attorney general’s office came to its conclusion. 

The family has hired an attorney to represent them in a civil action “to seek justice” for their loved one, Teal said.

James Hughes, Maurice McCarty Hughes’ father, said he was not surprised by the attorney general’s conclusion.

“Black lives don’t matter,” he said, but then paused.

“They kill a Black man – I imagine if it would have been a white man they would have said the same thing. It ain’t about race. It don’t make no difference about color. They are just going to stick together on this stuff.”

This article first on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Mississippi Republicans announce minority, women outreach initiatives

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Mississippi Republicans announce minority, women outreach initiatives

The Mississippi Republican Party, touting its unifying conservative values, kicked off a minority outreach initiative Wednesday outside of party headquarters in downtown Jackson.

The party also announced an initiative, led in part by Lynn Fitch, to try to increase the number of women elected officials in the state.

At the event, attended by about 20 African Americans, party officials said Republicans and of all races hold the same conservative values.

“There is more that connects us than divides us,” said Rodney Hall of Southaven, the chair of the GOP outreach committee.

Fitch, whose office defended the Mississippi law that led to the decision that repealed a national right to an , said: “We are very conservative about life. We are conservative about family … Now more than ever, Republican values are needed.”

In Mississippi, perhaps more so than in any state in the country, the vast majority of white residents vote Republican while most Black residents support the Democratic Party. African Americans comprise about 38% of the total state population — the highest percentage of any state in America.

There are few elected Black Republicans in the state and none in the .

At the event, state Republican Party leaders did not address some of the issues that African American elected officials often stress, such as the need to expand Medicaid to provide coverage for about 250,000 primarily working Mississippians. Republican leaders have blocked those efforts, leaving Mississippi as one of only 12 states in the nation not ensuring health care coverage for poor workers.

Another issue where there have been policy differences is on the elimination of the tax on groceries, the highest of its kind in the nation. Efforts to eliminate the tax have been blocked in past years by Republican leaders, though it results in poor people, many of them people of color, paying a larger percentage of their income in taxes. Plus, many have cited efforts of Republicans to ban the teaching of as an effort to prevent the teaching of the impact of racism on the history of the state and nation.

Fitch did endorse providing Medicaid coverage for mothers for one year after giving birth. Currently, the state Medicaid program only provides 60 days of postpartum coverage, though the Biden administration mandated a year of coverage as part of the federal emergency order.

Many Mississippi Republicans have opposed expanding health care for poor mothers.

“We as Mississippi Republicans are eager to grow our party,” party Chair Frank Bordeaux said in a news release. “We know our plans and policies to reduce inflation, lower taxes, cut wasteful spending, secure our borders, invest in national defense, and restore American energy are appealing to all Americans. We’re going to take that message to communities where Republicans have not traditionally been as successful in order to recruit, train, and elect a more diverse group of candidates and bring thousands more freedom-loving Mississippians into our party.”

Fitch said there have been only four women elected to statewide “constitutional” office in Mississippi, and just 15% of the majority Republican Legislature is comprised of women.

There have, however, been six women elected statewide: Nellah Bailey as , Julia Henrich Kendrick as Supreme Court clerk, Evelyn Gandy as lieutenant governor and treasurer, Amy Tuck as lieutenant governor, Cindy Hyde-Smith as commissioner of agriculture and commerce, and Fitch as attorney general and treasurer.

Hyde-Smith is currently serving in the U.S. Senate as the first woman from Mississippi elected to federal office.

The posts of tax collector and Supreme Court clerk have been eliminated as elected offices.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

AG Lynn Fitch to open Oxford office

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AG Lynn Fitch to open north Mississippi office, but not in Houston

Following in the footsteps of her predecessor, Lynn Fitch will have satellite offices in both south and north Mississippi.

Fitch currently is seeking to lease space in Oxford in north Mississippi. According to Michelle Williams, Fitch’s chief of staff, the attorney general already has an office in in .

“The Attorney General’s Office has multiple attorneys, investigators, and support staff that are currently spread out in a variety of locations in north Mississippi,” Williams said in a written response to questions. “We can create greater efficiencies and better workflows by giving them a central office, just as we already have in south Mississippi.”

Former Attorney General Jim Hood, who served four terms before running unsuccessfully for governor in 2019, opened satellite offices on the Gulf Coast and in his hometown of Houston — about 45 minutes southwest of Tupelo in northeast Mississippi.

When Hood opened the Houston office in 2013, he said he was moving his family back to his home county of Chickasaw and would work primarily out of that office while making trips to his main office in Jackson as needed.

For years, the ’s conservative media blistered Hood for opening the Houston office that he said he would use and would provide space for investigators who work in north Mississippi. The state paid $750 per month plus utilities for the Houston office.

According to the state Department of Finance and Administration website, Fitch is seeking office space of 4,424 square feet in Oxford. The DFA posting said the Oxford AG’s office is needed as a “secure evidence room to hold any confiscated or owned guns and ammunition.”

“Oxford is central and the location of the federal courthouse, FBI office, and law school,” Williams said. “The size of the space for which we are seeking bids is determined by a formula DFA (Finance and Administration) has created for overall space efficiency.”

Oxford is home to the University of Mississippi, where Fitch attended both undergraduate and law school, and is one of the most expensive real estate markets in the state. Oxford is about one hour north of Houston, one hour west of Tupelo, and 75 minutes southwest of Southaven.

Williams said the attorney general’s south Mississippi staff works out of the Bolton Building in Biloxi.

This article first on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Fitch settled Katrina cases for pennies on the dollar compared to others

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AG Lynn Fitch settled Katrina insurance cases for pennies on the dollar compared to others

Lynn Fitch has quietly settled Mississippi’s claims against insurance companies over damages for pennies on the dollar to a similar federal case and those settled by her predecessor.

In 2015, former Attorney General Jim Hood and outside attorneys filed a to recoup funds that were awarded to homeowners when the insurance companies did not meet what Hood argued was their legal obligation. After Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast in 2005, insurance companies refused to pay or paid only limited amounts on many claims of homeowners, saying their damage was caused by water not wind and their policies did not cover flood damage.

The state created the Homeowner Assistance Program to help make those homeowners “whole.” Through that program, the state paid $2.03 billion to homeowners for damages. But, according to the lawsuits, many of those damages should have been covered by insurance companies that denied paying damages or limited payouts, citing water damage when in reality the damage was caused by wind. That could have saved the state tens of millions in public funds to be spent on recovery efforts or elsewhere.

In a similar federal case, where the federal flood insurance program accused State Farm of failing to pay for wind damage and instead foisting it off on the National Flood Insurance Program, State Farm agreed to pay the federal government $100 million. But Fitch settled the state’s wind vs. water case with State Farm — which held the most policies of any insurer on the Coast in Katrina — for $12 million.

Before leaving office as attorney general in 2020, Hood settled three of the lawsuits – against insurers Metropolitan, American Security and Balboa. The three lawsuits, covering 652 policyholders, were settled for a total of $6.78 million, or $10,410 per policyholder. Since then, Fitch has settled five of the lawsuits, including the largest against State Farm and Allstate, for a cumulative $21.9 million, or $1,441 per policyholder.

When asked about the settlement discrepancies, Michelle Williams, Fitch’s chief of staff, said in a statement: “I cannot answer some of your questions because we still have pending litigation and your questions involve litigation strategy. But, I will note that the Federal/NFIP (National Flood Insurance Program) case involves different issues, different facts, and different laws from our state case even though the underlying event of Hurricane Katrina is the same.”

One case, against PRIME Insurance, is still pending finalization.

Mississippi Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney said he supported the settlement of the lawsuits to bring stability to the insurance market in the state.

“I am glad they got settled,” he said. “I have a stable market unlike what is happening in Florida, Louisiana and Texas” with their insurance markets.

Despite Williams’ and Chaney’s defense, some question whether Fitch should have gotten better settlements for the state.

“Because she is a Republican, Attorney General Fitch is probably cozier with the insurance companies than were her two predecessors,” said David Baria, a attorney and former Democratic state lawmaker who last week won $10 million in punitive damages against USAA insurance company in a similar case where the insurance company was accused of using deceptive practices to avoid or delay paying a claim.

While the jury awarded the estate of Sylvia Minor $10 million in punitive damages and $1.5 million in compensatory damages, Fitch settled the state case involving hundreds of other homeowners with the same USAA for $1.4 million.

Private attorneys contracted with Hood to assist on the case, who receive a percentage of any settlement but nothing if they do not prevail, declined comment on the settlements.

But Baria, who was not involved in the state cases, said a person could compare what the jury awarded in his case and what was awarded in a similar federal case ($100 million) “and “reach your own conclusion” about whether the Fitch settlements were too low.

Chip Merlin is founder of the Merlin Law Group, one of the largest national firms representing policyholders in disputes with insurance companies. His firm handled hundreds of Katrina policyholder claims, including many in Mississippi, all of which have been resolved. Like many others across the country, Merlin was keeping tabs on pending cases, including the state of Mississippi’s lawsuits over the Homeowner Assistance Program.

Merlin said, “I was as surprised as anybody else,” when he learned from recent reports that most of the outstanding state litigation had been quietly settled starting more than a year ago, with the Mississippi AG’s office issuing no press statements or releases or posting on its website. Merlin said this shows a great lack of transparency for cases brought on behalf of the public.

“I almost fell out of my chair,” Merlin said. “How come we didn’t know about it? That’s a public lawsuit … That impacts the public treasury and there should be some explanation why elected officials thought this was in the best interest of Mississippi.”

Merlin said he can’t opine whether the $12 million settlement with State Farm and other settlements were fair for taxpayers because “we don’t know enough about it — that’s the problem.”

“It’s just very weird the state would settle a year before and nobody know,” Merlin said. “… It calls for the attorney general to say something. I’ve never heard of a settlement involving a public entity being secret … It’s supposed to be on behalf of everybody for the state. If it wasn’t favorable to the state, then the matter should continue on. If it was favorable, you would think elected officials would explain why.”

In terms of transparency, Merlin said it is also unusual that there is a strict non-disclosure clause in the state settlements since the agreements involved public/state funds. Similar language was not in the contracts negotiated by Hood.

Citing pending litigation, Fitch’s office refused to comment on the need for the non-disclosure clause. The attorney general’s office required Mississippi Today and the Sun Herald, which first reported on the State Farm settlement, to submit public records requests to ascertain the settlement amounts. Normally, the AG’s office sends out news releases when settling or winning lawsuits.

As to some companies who settled before Fitch took over for more money per policy, Merlin said: “If similar conduct was going on, then the issue is why did you get so much more against the other companies and less against State Farm?

“I do have to applaud the former attorney general for bringing the litigation in the first place,” Merlin said. “Many times attorneys general don’t bring these actions. It might be difficult, suing big insurance companies.”

Merlin also commented on Mississippi’s Homeowner Assistance Program, which he said was well run and helped thousands of families.

“Mississippi did a great job of getting the money out and taking care of citizens,” Merlin said, “especially compared to Louisiana … I’ve been around to a lot of storms and a lot of states, and nobody ever says the good things, but Mississippi officials did a fantastic job with that.”

State Farm recently agreed to pay the federal government $100 million to settle long-running litigation in federal court, involving two former employee “whistleblowers.” A jury in the case had found that State Farm defrauded the National Flood Insurance Program by charging it for flood damage to a policyholder’s home when the destruction was caused by wind. State Farm’s policies covered wind damage but not flood, which is covered by NFIP. The whistleblowers claimed the company shifted wind damages it should have covered to the federal flood program.

After Katrina, Mississippi received billions in federal block grant funds for Katrina recovery. The state created the Homeowners Assistance Program to provide homeowners grants for flood damage. Thousands of homeowners, who had long been told they did not need federal flood insurance, saw destruction or major damage to their homes by Katrina’s unprecedented .

Mississippi, with its litigation, claimed insurers let the state Homeowner Assistance Program pay people for wind damages that should have been covered by their private insurance policies. The state was suing for damages and money collected from the litigation would go into state coffers.

Hood claimed insurance companies caused Mississippi to pay millions of dollars the state could have otherwise used for other recovery efforts.

“State Farm took advantage of our program by causing HAP to pay for wind losses that State Farm should have covered under its homeowner policies,” Hood said at the time. “Remarkably, State Farm and other insurers walked away from Hurricane Katrina and experienced record profits in the years following, while Mississippi continues to suffer.”

State Farm spokesman Roszell Gadson had little comment when asked about the company’s $12 million settlement with Mississippi. The company has denied wrongdoing in any of its Katrina litigation.

“While State Farm is pleased to have reached a settlement in this matter, the settlement is not an admission that State Farm did anything wrong,” Gadson said. “That is all we have to share.”

According to the lawsuit originally filed by Hood, the state paid State Farm policyholders through HAP $522.1 million, or on average $76,673 per policyholder. By comparison, State Farm paid $98.7 million or on average $14,494 per policyholder.

The largest case settled by Hood before he left office was with Metropolitan Property. Hood settled that case for $4.75 million. Metropolitan paid 429 customers, on average, $8,796. HAP paid $39.2 million, or on average $90,488. Hood settled American Security for $1.35 million. HAP paid 115 American Security policyholders $71 million or $57,070 per customer. By comparison American Security paid $1.2 million or $5,491 per policyholder.

Chaney said the settlement amounts Hood garnered were higher because at least one of the companies wanted to settle quickly so that the lawsuit would not hinder its efforts to merge with another company.

Chaney said all of the settlements were negotiated by Maison Heidelberg, a Jackson attorney who was one of the attorneys hired by Hood to work on the case. Chaney said the methodology used by Hood in filing the original lawsuits were flawed. He said the lawsuits filed by Hood claimed that the insurance companies were not providing proper payouts for 70% of the claimants when in reality it might have been only 700 or 800.

“Then you had people getting $150,000 grants … (through HAP) and coming back and trying to double dip and get money from the insurance companies,” he said.

Heidelberg, along with other private attorneys involved in the cases, declined comment.

This article first on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Timeline: How an NFL star, state officials and a university funded the USM volleyball stadium

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Timeline: How an NFL star, state officials and a university funded the USM volleyball stadium

As more documents and text messages come to light surrounding the Brett Favre volleyball project, Mississippi Today has compiled a timeline that gives a greater glimpse into how officials funneled $5 million in welfare funds to build a new stadium at University of Southern Mississippi.

The timeline shows that Favre discussed the volleyball stadium for months before reaching out to then-Gov. Phil Bryant for help raising donations. When the private funds didn’t immediately roll in, university officials discussed bringing on Nancy New’s nonprofit as a lease partner on the project. The nonprofit had already signed a similar lease to provide upgrades to another building on campus following a hunting trip Nancy New’s sons attended with USM officials. A flurry of activity happened in late July and early August, including conversations between welfare officials, Favre and Bryant.

USM officials expressed apprehension about using grant funds for the project, but eventually, after the deal was modified to include an additional $1 million for improvements to the basketball stadium and the university’s maintenance fund, per Favre’s texts, university attorneys greenlit the project. It was then approved by the ’s Office and IHL. 

Below is a timeline of events compiled by Mississippi Today based on documents and communication gathered in the court process or retrieved through records requests:

Dec. 20, 2016: Conversations began sometime before then between University of Southern Mississippi and Brett Favre about building a volleyball stadium

“I had the impression Brett wanted to keep his involvement quiet,” Senior Associate Director of Athletics Daniel Feig wrote in an email to his colleague on Dec. 20, 2016.

April 11, 2017: Brett Favre met with USM Athletics about the volleyball facility

“FYI-Chris and I are meeting with Brett and Deanna Tuesday at 11 am to discuss the layout of the facility,” Athletic Director Jon Gilbert wrote in an email on April 7, 2017, the same day Favre started soliciting donations to corporations in exchange for their name on the facility. “Can discuss naming opportunities further if the group has a direction we should look at exploring.”

April 20, 2017: Brett Favre texted Gov. Phil Bryant for help with volleyball project

“Deanna and I are building a volleyball facility on campus and I need your influence somehow to get donations and or sponsorships. Obviously Southern has no money so I’m hustling to get it raised. We want to start this summer and finish in a year or less,” Favre texted the governor.

Bryant said in his filing that this was the first time he discussed the volleyball project with Favre.

“…We will have that thing built before you know it. One thing I know how to do is raise money,” Bryant responded.

April 20, 2017 – July 21, 2017: Bryant’s communication with Favre and welfare officials unknown

Bryant did not produce any of his text messages with Favre or then-MDHS Director John Davis, Bryant’s appointee to the welfare programs, in the several months after Favre first asked the governor for help with the volleyball project. The messages produced and redacted suggest there could be more communication between the two during this time period.

May 16, 2017: USM Athletics compiled updated donor list

At this point, the USM Athletic Foundation had raised $425,500, including $150,000 from Favre.

May 30, 2017: Nancy New’s sons went hunting with USM athletics staff

On May 23, 2017, USM associate athletic director Brian Morrison invited Nancy New’s sons Zach and Jess New to attend a private hunting event and dinner at Providence Hill Farm with USM President Rodney Bennett and Director of Athletics Jon Gilbert on May 30. They both agreed by email to attend. At this point, MDHS and the ’ nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center were already engaged in grant activities at USM.

May 31, 2017: MDHS wrote letter approving a non-volleyball related lease between USM and MCEC

MDHS writes a letter to Feig that said MDHS is aware that MCEC is leasing space with the university “because we believe it is important to help MCEC accomplish the purpose of their subgrant which is to provide services designed to stimulate employment, support family financial stability, promote literacy, and increase graduation rates while continuing to support positive youth development, impacting teen pregnancy rates, promotion positive father involvement and supporting MDHS county offices through parenting education and parenting/life skills development.”

While John Davis’ name appears at the end of the letter, it is actually signed by MDHS attorney Garrig Shields. This is the first reference to a lease agreement in emails between MCEC and USM Athletic Foundation.

June 1, 2017: AG reviewed USM’s lease with athletic foundation to build volleyball stadium

Special Assistant Attorney General Stephanie Ganucheau emailed Institutions of Higher Learning officials a copy of a lease between USM and USM Athletic Foundation “so that the Foundation can build a volleyball facility, which would then be transferred back to the university.”

Later that day, IHL’s David Buford emailed an insurance professional for advice on insurance terms. He explained the concept of the project: “USM leases the grounds (which is a vacant space and a parking lot next to a USM-insured building) and the Foundation gets financing, builds a new building, and gives the new building back to USM.”

Based on the emails, it appears IHL was unaware where the Athletic Foundation’s funding may be coming from.

June 7, 2017: AG recommended USM lease with athletic foundation for board approval

At this point, the lease does not involve Mississippi Community Education Center, MDHS block grant funds or any mention of serving the needy.

June 15, 2017: IHL Board approved USM leases with USM Athletic Foundation

During its board meeting, the Institutes of Higher Learning board approved two $1 leases with the Athletic Foundation, one for the volleyball project and one for the purpose of renovating M-Club.

June 15, 2017: Nancy New signed a $192,840 sublease with USM Athletic Foundation

Nancy New and Grant Dyess, then-president of the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation, signed a sublease for a building within the Jim and Duff Athletic Center known as the M-Club Room, a space used for USM Athletics meetings and activities. The agreement said the money will be used for renovations and upgrades to the space. The sublease said plainly that MCEC will use the space “for business purposes, educational purposes and for meetings and conferences.”

The M-Club charged membership dues of $50 a year, according to the university’s website.

July 1, 2017: USM signed two leases with Athletic Foundation

USM signed two leases with USM Athletic Foundation, one for M-Club and one for the volleyball project. At this point, MCEC was already engaged on a sublease for M-Club, but not for the volleyball project.

July 16, 2017: USM Athletics reached out to Nancy New about volleyball facility

Gilbert emailed Nancy New, indicating they had met the prior week. He attached a copy of the current volleyball facility design. 

“We have not formally announced this project but expect to do so in the next week to ten days. We have hired Weir Boerner Allin out of Jackson as the architect. The facility will be plus/minus 25,000 square feet with an approximate cost of $4 million. Brett and Deanna have agreed to help with fundraising for the facility. We currently have $1.2 million in hand from a variety of people that have committed to the project … Based on our discussion last week, we are interested in presenting this project as once that will benefit women student athletes. We would be interested in presenting to anyone that you would thing have interest in Southern and women’s athletics. I will find out what Brett’s schedule is Tuesday and coordinate a time he can stop by that works for everyone.”

“I am glad to help and look forward to seeing this project to fruition,” Nancy New responded. “I believe it can be done. I, too, was glad to visit with Brian and you. As soon as we get everything put back together after all the renovations, I want you to come back for lunch and a tour of New Summit and our Family Resource Center. The Center offers a good example of the one that we will be organization on Southern’s campus, hopefully in the near future.”

July 18, 2017: Brett Favre met with Nancy New about funding the volleyball project

Favre met with Nancy New, according to Mississippi Community Education Center’s Sept. 30 filing.

July 19, 2017: John Davis met with Phil Bryant about DHS projects

Davis texted Nancy New, “Been with Gov for last two days. He’s loving what we are doing.”

July 21, 2017: Brett Favre and Phil Bryant texted about volleyball project

Screenshots of texts entered into court show Favre texted Bryant on the evening of July 21, 2017, but Favre’s initial message and Bryant’s lengthier response are redacted.

Favre responded to Bryant’s redacted message: “Not sure how we you can help get this facility built for Vball. But you are the governor and on our side and that’s a good thing. Actually a great thing.”

“We can do that,” Bryant responded. “Just get me some numbers and I’ll find a way. Maybe USM or the Coach can call me and we’ll get on it.”

July 22, 2017: Favre sent Bryant construction proposal

Favre texted Bryant a document containing the construction proposal and building renderings. “Latest plans. I’m trying to get sponsors,donations etc…. if we can find a contractor that would say hey rater that give you money I’ll build for free!! Maybe you know of someone,” Favre texted.

“I all over it,” Bryant texted, followed by a bicep emoji.

“Thanks that would help a ton!!” Favre said.

Bryant’s next text, as well as its date and time, are redacted.

July 22, 2017 – May 8, 2018: Bryant’s communication with Favre and welfare officials unknown

Bryant did not produce any of his messages with Favre or Davis for a ten month period, including the time period in which Davis committed to funding the project and Nancy New paid $5 million to the volleyball project and $500,000 million to Favre.

July 24, 2017: Favre, welfare officials and USM athletic staff met

Two days after texting Bryant the construction proposal, Favre met with Bryant’s appointed welfare director John Davis, Nancy New, USM athletics officials and others at the university. During the meeting, Davis verbally committed $4 million to the project.

“Nancy thank you again!!! John mentioned 4 million and not sure if I heard him right. Very big deal and can’t thank you enough,” Favre texted Nancy New after the meeting.

July 25, 2017: Zach New, MDHS attorney and USM Athletics officials discussed volleyball project

“Are you available for a conference call with Garrig and I tomorrow morning?” Zach New emailed Feig the evening of July 24, after the meeting at USM. “I am open to anytime in the morning that will fit your schedule. We would like to discuss options for the new project. I have also copied Garrig in so you will have his contact information as well.”

July 26, 2017: Brett Favre told Nancy New that USM is uneasy about accepting grant

“Nancy I spoke with Jon Gilbert this evening and between you and I he is very Leary of accepting such a large grant. Got me very uneasy,” Favre texted Nancy New. “He did mention trying to find a way for John (Davis) to allocate money to an entity that could then give to us that would pay for brick and mortar. I passed same info to John and of course he sent back we will find a way to make it work.”

At some point after USM expressed hesitations, discussions changed so that the lease would include not only money for the volleyball stadium, but $500,000 for renovations to Reed Green Coliseum, the basketball stadium, and $500,000 for maintenance, potentially causing a $1 million shortfall for the volleyball project, which was already under budgeted.

July 29, 2017: Favre reiterated USM’s fears about taking grant money, suggested including the governor

“Nancy do I need to involve the governor and or Dr.B if need be. Jon made the comment about using money you allocated to athletic dept thus far and although signed off on by all could raise negative concerns etc… with this project and others,” Favre texted Nancy New. “My fear is he doesn’t except all that you and John can allocate even if it is legally signed off on. It’s obvious that you and John are tremendous assets for USM and in order for us to get ahead in the game we have to utilize you guys in every way.”

July 29, 2017: Favre suggested to Nancy New that she pay him for radio spots “and whatever compensation could go to USM.”

“Ok. I could record a few radio spots here initially I’m sure right here,” Favre texted Nancy New. “See how it is received and whatever compensation could go to USM.”

“4 million dollars,” Nancy New responded, followed by three emojis of a face wearing a mask. “Just kidding. The first phase could be $500,000 and after Sept. we can renew. This is a good approach. What do you think?”

“Was just thinking that here is the way to do it!!” Favre responded.

Aug. 2, 2017: Favre texted Nancy New that “the facility is gonna be more than we thought.”

“John said you guys have a big meeting Monday with university. Hope we hit a homerun. Looks as though the facility is gonna be more than we thought which is always the case,” Favre texted Nancy New.

Favre also texted New, “They are scared to death it seems,” and while this text is entered without context, New’s attorney said it referred to university officials’ fears about taking the grant money. 

Aug. 3, 2017: Favre asked Nancy New if the media can find out where the money came from and how much

“If you were to pay me is there anyway the media can find out where it came from and how much?” Favre texted Nancy New.

“No, we never have had that information publicized. I understand you being uneasy about that though. Let’s see what happens on Monday with the conversation with some of the folks at Southern. Maybe it will click with them. Hopefully.”

Aug. 4, 2017: Nancy New informed Favre of Bryant’s support

“Wow, just got off the phone with Phil Bryant! He is on board with us! We will get this done!” Nancy New texted Favre.

Nancy New alleged in a court filing that around this time, Phil Bryant directed her to make this deal with Favre.

Aug. 10, 2017: Nancy New texted Favre sharing message from USM counsel

Nancy New texted Favre a copied message from USM general counsel Gordon Cannon that says “we are moving ahead to get this done.”

“Wow wow wow!! Great news,” Favre responded.

Aug. 14, 2017: Nancy New met with USM Department of Research about volleyball funding

Aug. 19, 2017:  Nancy New texted Favre an update about approval

“Morning. I got a call yesterday from Gordon Cannon that their meetings went well on accepting the money, etc. Next Wed. there is another meeting with MDHS attorney and USM to make sure all the wording is good before it goes to IHL. Still keeping my fingers crossed. I still think it will happen,” Nancy New texted.

“Thanks Nancy. Jon Gilbert said the same thing yesterday,” Favre responded.

Aug. 23, 2017: Nancy New texted Favre USM counsel said “everything is a go.”

“Brett, I just received this info from Dr. Cannon,” Nancy New texted, followed by the copied message: “Nancy, just finished the meeting with Garrig and Jacob everything is a go. Daniel Feig will be in touch with you or Zack to ask for a draft lease. Our target date for having everything complete for board approval is Sept22. I know this a a short time line but that would get us approval 1. October which would not delay bidding the project as currently .”

Sept. 8, 2017: Zach New sent USM athletics and general counsel the nonprofit’s plans for the lease

Zach New sends an email to Feig and USM counsel Truett Roberts outlining several events MCEC claimed it would host at the university as a result of its $5 million lease. The events include Yellow Ribbon Events – meant to assist members of the National Guard and Army Reserves – Reservist Trainings, M-Club events, Healthy Teens Rallies, youth leadership camps by Heart of David, the Christian ministry started by former WWE wrestler Ted DiBiase, and other Families First programming. 

When Mississippi Today requested records from the university in 2020 that described any programming the nonprofit conducted on campus, they provided records for exactly one event: The Healthy Teens Rally of 2018 hosted at Reed Green Coliseum. 

Sept. 22, 2017: USM President Rodney Bennett sent a letter to IHL requesting board approval for the university’s amended lease with USM Athletic Foundation

Oct. 9 2017: AG approved the amended USM lease with the athletic foundation

Oct. 19, 2017: IHL board approved amended lease between USM and USM Athletic Foundation

On the agenda, the item reads: “The IHL Board approved the original Lease Agreement between the USM and Foundation at the June, 2017 Board meeting. Since that time, this project has been expanded in size and scope and the term has also been extended in accordance with the Amended and Restated Lease.”

The approved meeting minutes : “This lease and subsequent sublease are being funded through the lease of athletic department facilities by the Mississippi Community Education Center (MCEC), a SO1(3)3 organization designed to provide schools, communities and families with educational services and training programs in . MCEC will use the subject facilities to support their programming efforts for South Mississippi. MCEC’s funding for the project is via a Block Grant from the Mississippi Department of Human Services. The funding from MCEC shall be prepaid rent to the Foundation in the amount of Five Million Dollars ($5,000,000) for the leasing of certain USM athletic facilities including but not limited to the to be constructed Wellness Center, Reed Green Coliseum and additional athletic space as agreed upon by USM and the Foundation.”

Oct. 19, 2017: Nancy New texted Favre about approval; Favre said USM is using part of the money for other projects

“It’s a go. All approved by IHL!” Nancy New wrote.

“Finally and thanks Nancy. I hope it’s enough now. Jon said 500k has to go to renovations for reed green and another 500 to maintenances fund,” Favre responded.

“We will still fundraiser, etc. we will get the rest,” Nancy New texted.

Nov. 2, 2017: Nancy New told Favre she saw the governor

“I saw the Gov last night. We will still plan the fundraiser as well when we can get another date from him that works with your time, too. Surely, Southern folks won’t say to postpone it again. At any rate it’s all going to work out,” Nancy New texted Favre.

Nov. 6, 2017: Nancy New made first payment of $2.5 million to USM Athletic Foundation

Nov. 14, 2017: Athletic Foundation received update from USM athletics about volleyball project

“Wellness and Volleyball Facility has received significant gift and also gift in kinds. A partnership with MCEC will make the facility useful to make groups once it is completed,” the meeting minutes read.

Dec. 5, 2017: Nancy New made second payment of $2.5 million to USM Athletic Foundation

Dec. 27, 2017: Favre thanked Nancy New for $600,000 payment

“Nancy Santa came today and dropped some money off,” Favre texted Nancy New, “thank you my goodness thank you. We need to set up the promo for you soon. Your way to kind.”

Mar. 28, 2018: Favre texted Nancy New, telling her the construction bids came in larger than expected

“Nancy I wanted to update you on facility. The bids all are in and shockingly the lowest is 6.9. The architects were confident it would come it lower than what we have saved. Really frustrating. Jon said he wanted to go back to lowest bed and talk to them about getting it down to 5.9. I’ll keep you updated,” Favre texted Nancy New.

“…We can still have the fundraiser at the Governor’s mansion, too. We can use Phil’s business list that he offered earlier. I will be thinking and hopefully there will be something in the new budget for Families First to offer.”

April 19, 2018: USM Athletics shared an updated list of volleyball facility donors

USM Athletics staffers shared by email an updated list of 23 volleyball donors for a total of $6,045,325. There is an entry for a $4.4 million donation labeled from the donor “CMEC”—presumably a typo for MCEC. The line item for MCEC does not contain any more identifying information, such as the date of donation, the donor’s address or contact information, as it includes for all other donors.

The email also said Favre’s original gift of $500,000 was reduced to $250,000 after he instructed the university to transfer $250,000 to the beach volleyball project.

April 25, 2018: Architect sent updated cost sheet for volleyball facility to USM

In the spreadsheet, the total projected construction cost is $6.3 million, the amount needed to begin construction is $500,000 and the amount needed to finish construction is $1.4 million.

Gilbert sent the document to Favre.

April 30, 2018: USM Athletics sends Favre a donor agreement totaling $1.4 million

“Thank you very much for your generous support of this project and your commitment and loyalty to Southern Miss,” Gilbert wrote to Favre.

Mississippi Today did not find a signed copy of the agreement.

May 9, 2018: Favre reaches out to Bryant for help building lockers at the volleyball facility

“Governor this Brett. I’m still trying to save money on Vball facility,” Favre texted Bryant. “We have visitor and Home lockers yet to build and Warren Hood is donating any lumber. If someone would build them on there spare time. Poncho mentioned the prison industry as a builder. The architects can provide all specs.”

“Let me get on it. Turkey hunting in Nebraska. Will be back this P.M.,” Bryant responded, attaching a picture of his kill.

May 18, 2018: Favre and Bryant texted about lockers

“Hey Governor [redacted]…. Any luck with lockers?” Favre texted, followed by a long block of redacted text.

“I think I have some guys in the lockers. Will know more today. They are in Summeral a,” Bryant wrote.

“And do this type of work,” Bryant texted, followed by a long block of redacted text.

Favre’s response is also redacted.

Bryant responded with a thumbs up and “where can I sent a donation for the Volleyball Complex?”

Favre sent Bryant the USM Foundation’s P.O. Box. Bryant then told Favre that he had found a cabinet maker to construct the lockers. “I am also going to reach out to Poncho and see if we can’t get a fundraiser in Hattiesburg put together,” he added.

May 18, 2018 – July 15, 2019: Bryant’s communication with Favre unknown

For this 11-month period, Bryant did not produce any of his texts with Favre, with the exception of one Jan. 12, 2019 text Bryant sent Favre asking him to retweet a post about the HGTV star who helped connect Bryant with the cabinetmaker.

June, 2018: Nancy New paid Favre an additional $500,000 under advertising contract

June 21, 2019: Bryant received and relayed a tip about suspected fraud to auditor

In communication after this point, which includes Bryant advising Favre on how to reword the proposal to get accepted by the welfare department and has been heavily reported, Bryant is aware of the auditor’s investigation into spending at the welfare department.

July 16, 2019: Bryant said he learned for the first time that MDHS was involved in funding the volleyball project

Favre texted Bryant with concerns that Nancy New wouldn’t be able to “fund her part” of the volleyball project. Favre told Bryant that he paid for three-fourths of the construction. Bryant said in his recent court filing that July 16 was the first time he learned about MDHS’s involvement in funding the stadium. Bryant promised to help, and consulted Favre and Nancy New on how to rewrite the proposal to get MDHS approval, but with the ongoing auditor’s investigation, the welfare department ultimately turned them down.

Editor’s note: Mississippi Today Editor-in-Chief Adam Ganucheau’s mother signed off on the language of a lease agreement to construct a University of Southern Mississippi volleyball stadium. Read more about that here.

This article first on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

AG fights to limit court monitor oversight in mental health lawsui

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Mental health agency, AG at odds over court-appointed monitor’s work

While the Department of Mental Health works to expand community-based mental health services for , the ’s Office continues to fight oversight of that effort.

State attorneys filed an objection to the most recent report by the court-appointed monitor reviewing the department’s progress toward reducing unnecessary hospitalizations of people with serious mental illness – the latest example of the disconnect between the state’s top law enforcement agency and the mental health department. 

“The State is concerned that the volume of general commentary, discussion in the nature of perceived best practices, and recommendations in the Second Report, coupled with the Monitor’s 3-part framework for assessing compliance, is resulting in mission creep – i.e., the incremental expansion of the Remedial Order well beyond its terms,” the objection, filed on Sept. 22, said. 

In 2016, the Department of Justice sued the state over its mental health system. U.S. District Court Judge Carlton W. Reeves sided with the federal government in 2019, finding that Mississippi had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by segregating people with mental illness in hospitals far from their homes and families. 

Last year, Reeves appointed Michael Hogan, a former New York State Commissioner on Mental Health with 40 years of mental health experience, to create twice-yearly reports monitoring the state’s progress toward providing community-based services to help people avoid hospitalization. 

Hogan filed his second report in early September. The 62-page document found that Mississippi had reduced hospitalizations, but that problems with care coordination at community mental health centers lead to people falling through the cracks. 

Hogan told Mississippi Today that he sees the case as two sides of a coin. On one side, he believes the Department of Mental Health is working in good faith to comply with Reeves’ remedial order. 

“The other side of the coin is legal, and on that side, the state has fought – as far as I can tell – every aspect of the case from the beginning, and continues to,” he said. 

The state appealed Reeves’ ruling to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing he had installed “perpetual federal oversight” of Mississippi’s mental health system. Oral arguments are set to take place in New Orleans next week. 

Meanwhile, Department of Mental Health leadership has publicly praised Hogan’s work.

“The Department of Mental Health values working with Dr. Hogan and appreciates his willingness to provide feedback as the agency continues to implement new data and validation measures, protocols, and audit processes that have begun over the past year,” department spokesman Adam Moore said earlier this month when Hogan filed his report. “As both reports have mentioned, much has been accomplished and there is much to be done.”

Moore said on Tuesday that the Department had nothing further to add and referred Mississippi Today to the Attorney General’s Office for questions regarding the litigation.

Michelle Williams, chief of staff for Attorney General Lynn Fitch, said the office does not comment on pending litigation and will let the filing speak for itself.

In September of last year, shortly before the state filed its appeal with the 5th Circuit, Department of Mental Health Director Wendy Bailey told lawmakers the agency would move forward regardless.

“We will comply with the judge’s order and do everything that we need to do as a state agency,” she told lawmakers. “As far as the appeal, that would be a question for the Attorney General’s office.”

Reeves’ order appointing Hogan requires him to “assess compliance” with each part of the remedial order, but it doesn’t spell out how exactly he should do that. Some components of the order are quantitative – for example, the state must operate one or more mobile crisis response teams in each region. But others are not, like the requirement that community mental health centers “make reasonable efforts” to reach people with serious mental illness and connect them with care.  

So Hogan developed a “three-part framework” in consultation with the state and the Department of Justice. For each element of the order, he looks at whether the state took action to address the requirement. Then he asks how well the action is working. Finally, he tries to assess whether the action is reducing unnecessary hospitalizations– the key goal of the

Hogan discussed that framework in his first monitoring report in March, and the state filed no objection. Now, the state claims the framework is “problematic” because it is not discussed in the remedial order and because it is not objective. 

“The Monitor cannot call balls and strikes without an objectively defined strike zone,” the state’s objection says. “The Remedial Order does not provide an objectively defined strike zone for the vast majority of its provisions. The rules for balls and strikes are not dependent on the professional judgment of the umpire. Likewise, compliance with the Remedial Order should not be dependent on the professional judgment of a monitor.”

Both the state – represented by the Attorney General’s Office –  and the Department of Justice have a chance to provide comments and suggested revisions before Hogan files each report with the court. Hogan said the state had raised many of the issues that now appear in its objection. He responded to those points but did not make all the changes the state wanted. 

“My view is, it is what it is,” he said. “And I proceed ahead on my side of the road or my side of the coin, which is to look at compliance and make the best judgments that are available.”

Read the state’s objection here:

This article first on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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