Attorney General

Powerful writing on racism could inspire SCOTUS to hear Mississippi case


This judge’s powerful writing on racism could inspire U.S. Supreme Court to hear Mississippi case

Editor’s note: This story contains graphic language. Also, you can read Judge James Graves’ complete dissent at the bottom of this story.

A dissent written by U.S. Court of Appeals Judge James Graves Jr. could play a key role in determining whether the will hear an appeal of a case that has, so far, upheld Mississippi’s Jim Crow-era constitutional provision written to keep Black people from .

Last month, the 5th U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a Mississippi constitutional provision that bans people convicted of certain felonies from voting. White leaders in Mississippi included most of those specific felonies in the state’s 1890 Constitution because they thought those crimes were more likely to be committed by African Americans.

Though attorneys challenging the provision in court say it has continued to disenfranchise Black Mississippians, a majority of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals did not agree. Following the appeals court’s ruling, plaintiff attorneys said they plan to appeal the lower court’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. They have 90 days from the final verdict that was issued on Aug. 24 the file the appeal.

Graves, a Black man from Mississippi who was appointed to the federal appeals court in 2010, wrote a 47-page dissent that outlines the state’s long and disturbing history of racism and its impact on America.

Rob McDuff, an attorney with the who is working on the case, said Graves’ dissent could increase the odds the Supreme Court will take up the case.

“A strong dissent like that of Justice Graves’ can highlight for the Supreme Court that this is an important case where the Court of Appeals is sharply divided,” said McDuff, who has argued four cases before the nation’s highest court. “This increases the chances the Supreme Court will take the case although it’s no guarantee.”

READ MORE: 5th Circuit upholds Jim Crow-era law written to keep Black Mississippians from voting

A majority of the 17 members of the Court of Appeals that heard the case acknowledged that the felony suffrage provision, like many in the 1890 Constitution, was intended to prevent African Americans, then a majority in the state, from voting. That reality would be difficult to deny.

“The plan is to invest permanently the powers of government in the hands of the people who ought to have them: the white people,” James Zachariah George, a U.S. senator who was one of the architects of the 1890 Constitution and to this day has a statue in the U.S. Capitol representing Mississippi, said at the time.

But the nine members of the court who made up the majority in the recent ruling said that when state lawmakers added murder and rape as disenfranchising crimes in 1968, “the racial taint” was removed because the original 1890 language crafted by George and others had been amended.

“The critical issue here is not the intent behind Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution, but whether the reenactment of Section 241 (the felony disenfranchisement language) in 1968 was free of intentional racial discrimination,” the nine-member majority wrote.

The majority concluded it was.

“Mississippi (represented by the office of Lynn Fitch) has conclusively shown that any taint associated with Section 241 has been cured,” the majority wrote last month in an unsigned opinion.

But in his blistering dissent, Graves methodically wrote that the racial taint had not at all been removed by state lawmakers in the 1960s.

He pointed out that the Legislature did not reenact Section 241 in 1968; it simply passed a provision to include murder and rape as disenfranchising crimes. Section 241 would have remained in effect regardless of whether the amendment adding murder and rape was approved by voters.

And perhaps more importantly, Graves pointed out many of the people in the Legislature and indeed the electorate as a whole at that time had been engaged in preventing Black Mississippians from voting and from integrating schools and society. Many of those same people had been engaged in violence against African Americans.

Graves cited Tom Brady, a member of the in 1968. Graves pointed out Brady wrote in a book that was available in many Mississippi schools: “You can dress a chimpanzee, housebreak him, and teach him to use a knife and fork, but it will take countless generations of evolutionary development, if ever, before you can convince him that a caterpillar or cockroach is not a delicacy. Likewise the social, economic and religious preferences of the Negro remain close to the caterpillar and the cockroach.”

Graves, in his dissent, also pointed out that in the mid 20the Century while Mississippi lawmakers were removing a racial taint from its state Constitution, according to the majority ruling, white South African leaders were traveling to Mississippi “to learn how best to keep their own Black population disempowered and impoverished in perpetuity,” and earlier Nazi leader Adolph Hitler proclaimed the goal of making a conquered region “our Mississippi.”

Graves cited a passage from a 1960s newspaper article detailing efforts during school desegregation when Mississippians were, according to the Court’s majority opinion, removing the racial taint from the felony suffrage provision of the 1890 Constitution.

“Some husky young men were whipping a little Negro girl with pigtails,” the reporter wrote. “She was running. The men chased after her, whooping and leaping up and down like animals.”

The dissent was filled with such reports of violence and of loss of life for African Americans.

Graves, a Clinton native, was one of the first African American circuit judges in the state – appointed to the post in 1991 by then-Gov. Ray Mabus. In 2001, he was appointed to the state Supreme Court by then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. President Barack Obama appointed him to a slot on the federal Court of Appeals in 2010.

Graves, in his dissent, recalled his own upbringing and life in Mississippi.

“Recounting Mississippi’s history forces me to relive my experiences growing up in the Jim Crow era,” he wrote. “While I do not rely on those experiences in deciding this case, I would be less than candid if I did not admit that I recall them. Vividly.

“So I confess that I remember in 1963 a cross that was burned on my grandmother’s lawn two doors down from where I grew up,” he wrote.

Graves goes on to recount his experiences with school desegregation, and his disdain after being appointed to the judiciary of having to serve under the state that contained the battle emblem as part of its design.

Graves also highlights actions in 2020 by the Legislature to replace the flag. But after that historic achievement, he pointed out Mississippi to this day is the only state to recognize a Confederate Heritage Month, and while other states recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Mississippi honors Confederate General Robert E. Lee on the same day.

“I recount these events, as a native Mississippian, only to highlight the importance of making the right decision in this case,” Graves wrote.

Read Judge Graves’ complete dissent below. His dissent begins on page 36.

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

AG’s office ignores forensic nurses’ questions about Plan B


Sexual assault nurses asked the AG’s office if Plan B is legal. They never got a response.

Mississippi nurses who take care of sexual assault victims are worried that the state’s ban could force them to stop offering emergency contraception – and they’re not getting any answers from the state’s chief legal officer. 

Months ago, following the Dobbs ruling that allowed an abortion ban to take effect in Mississippi, a group of forensic nurses reached out to Lynn Fitch’s office for guidance. 

Michelle Williams, Fitch’s chief of staff, never answered their questions about abortion laws – including whether emergency contraception was legal.

When pressed by Mississippi Today, Williams said, “You can look at the law. You can decide whether or not it’s legal. But it is.”

Williams said she had responded to the first part of the email that asked about a project to update the state’s rape kits, which she considered “most relevant,” and then thought the conversation was finished. 

The lack of response left the group of sexual assault nurse examiners concerned about potential legal consequences but determined to keep serving their patients. 

“I’m going to continue to provide the emergency contraception as long as we have it available and give the education and resources that I always have,” said Alizbeth Eaves, one of the state’s few certified sexual assault nurse examiners and the trauma and SANE program manager at Ochsner Rush in Meridian. “But I am afraid that I’m going to be told, ‘That was against the law, and you’re in big trouble for it.’”

Through a records request, Mississippi Today obtained an email sent on July 18 by Shalotta Sharp, special projects coordinator at the Mississippi Coalition Against Sexual Assault, listing legal questions forensic nurses have about how the state’s new ban on abortion could affect their work.

Sharp, who has decades of experience as a certified sexual assault nurse examiner and is a long-time leader in the field in Mississippi, asked if emergency contraception is now outlawed. She also wanted clarification as to as whether medical professionals can refer a patient to an abortion provider in another state. 

Alizbeth Eaves, one of Mississippi’s few certified sexual assault nurse examiners, is the trauma and SANE program manager at Ochsner Rush in Meridian.

“We are very thankful for any guidance and direction,” she concluded. “Thank you for your guidance and help!”

Williams responded that same day. She said she was on vacation but had proposed changes to victims compensation rules to review and should get back to Sharp soon. She did not acknowledge the other questions about the abortion law. 

Sharp never heard from Williams after that. She had reached out to the attorney general’s office, she said, because the chief law enforcement officer is responsible for providing clarity about what the law actually requires. 

“We certainly don’t want to be doing anything illegal,” she said. “But we also want what’s best for our patients.”

Mississippi Today told Sharp that Williams said emergency contraception is legal.

“If they’re saying that emergency contraception is not considered abortive, and it’s legal, literally that’s all I want to hear,” she said. 

Under the updated rape kit the Attorney General’s Office produced in collaboration with the Mississippi chapter of the International Association of Forensic Nurses this year, the state continues to reimburse medical providers for “medication treatment for prevention of… pregnancy” for victims of sexual assault, regardless of whether the victim reports to law enforcement. 

Only government entities, like counties, legislators and state agencies, can request official opinions from the attorney general, so Sharp’s email did not constitute a formal opinion request. Williams said the office can’t provide opinions outside that channel and that guidance for medical professionals comes from “any number of boards in the state.”

“We’ve been kind of left on read so to speak,” Eaves said. “It’s very frustrating that you’re going to have a trigger law in place and activate that trigger law without giving clear definitions and guidelines.”

Emergency contraception is recognized as part of the standard of care for victims of sexual assault by organizations like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. A copper intrauterine device is the most effective form and is about 99.9% successful at preventing pregnancy if placed within 120 hours of intercourse. Pills like ella and Plan B are also used in Mississippi hospitals. 

Emergency contraception does not end a pregnancy– generally, it stops ovulation so an egg cannot be fertilized. But sometimes, the treatment can function by stopping a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. 

“Where are we calling conception at?” Eaves said. “Because if we’re talking about when the sperm meets the egg, that could potentially take emergency contraception away.”

Some pro-life organizations consider the medication a form of abortion. The advocacy group Pro-Life Mississippi lists “Morning After Pill” on its website under “Types of Abortion.”

Attorneys general in other states have been willing to publicly clarify that emergency contraception is legal. In Missouri, a spokesperson for the office said state law — which bans abortion except in medical emergencies — did not prohibit Plan B after a local hospital said it would stop providing the medication because the “law is ambiguous.”

Mississippi’s ban on abortion specifies that abortion ends “the pregnancy of a woman known to be pregnant.” During the period when emergency contraception is effective, pregnancy tests do not yet detect pregnancy

Registered nurses practices during a sexual assault examination a training for nurses at St. Dominic in Jackson, Wednesday, April 10, 2019.

Forensic nurses interviewed by Mississippi Today said they are still providing emergency contraception to victims of sexual assault. 

“We’re just prescribing it left and right,” said one nurse, who asked that her name not be used because she did not have permission from her employer to talk to the media.

But she’s worried about the future. 

“That in itself is scary, that they (the Attorney General’s office) won’t just commit to saying, ‘Emergency contraception is okay,’” she said.

Eaves said the stakes of providing emergency contraception now feel higher than ever. If someone becomes pregnant following a rape, she is legally allowed to get an abortion in Mississippi only if “a formal charge of rape has been filed with an appropriate law enforcement official.”

That requirement makes Mississippi’s post-Dobbs abortion ban more restrictive than at almost any point in state history. When lawmakers added an exception to the state’s 1952 abortion ban for rape in 1966, they considered requiring a local chancery judge to first determine that a rape had occurred. But they rejected this idea because it would “require making the case a matter of public record and cause embarrassment to a wronged woman.” 

Now, state leaders appear to have no such concerns. 

Read the forensic nurses’ letter to the Attorney General’s Office:

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

Texts: Phil Bryant helped Brett Favre secure USM volleyball funding


Former Gov. Phil Bryant helped Brett Favre secure welfare funding for USM volleyball stadium, texts reveal

Text messages entered Monday into the state’s ongoing civil over the welfare scandal reveal that former Gov. Phil Bryant pushed to make NFL legend Brett Favre’s volleyball idea a reality.

The texts show that the then-governor even guided Favre on how to write a funding proposal so that it could be accepted by the Mississippi Department of Human Services – even after Bryant ousted the former welfare agency director John Davis for suspected fraud.

“Just left Brett Favre,” Bryant texted nonprofit founder Nancy New in July of 2019, within weeks of Davis’ departure. “Can we help him with his project. We should meet soon to see how I can make sure we keep your projects on course.”

When Favre asked Bryant how the new agency director might affect their plans to fund the volleyball stadium, Bryant assured him, “I will handle that… long story but had to make a change. But I will call Nancy and see what it will take,” according to the filing and a text Favre forwarded to New.

The newly released texts, filed Monday by an attorney representing Nancy New’s nonprofit, show that Bryant, Favre, New, Davis and others worked together to channel at least $5 million of the state’s welfare funds to build a new volleyball stadium at University of Southern Mississippi, where Favre’s daughter played the sport. Favre received most of the credit for raising funds to construct the facility.

Bryant has for years denied any close involvement in the steering of welfare funds to the volleyball stadium, though plans for the project even included naming the building after him, one text shows.

New, a friend of Bryant’s wife Deborah, ran a nonprofit that was in charge of spending tens of millions of flexible federal welfare dollars outside of public view. What followed was the biggest public fraud case in state history, according to the state auditor’s office. Nonprofit leaders had misspent at least $77 million in funds that were supposed to help the needy, forensic auditors found.

New pleaded guilty to 13 felony counts related to the scheme, and Davis awaits trial. But neither Bryant nor Favre have been charged with any .

And while the state-of-the-art facility represents the single largest known fraudulent purchase within the scheme, according to one of the criminal defendant’s plea agreement, the state is not pursuing the matter in its ongoing civil complaint. Current Gov. Tate Reeves abruptly fired the attorney bringing the state’s case when he tried to subpoena documents related to the volleyball stadium.

The messages also show that a separate $1.1 million welfare contract Favre received to promote the program – the subject of many national headlines – was simply a way to get more funding to the volleyball project.

“I could record a few radio spots,” Favre texted New, according to the new filing. “…and whatever compensation could go to USM.”

New, who is now aiding prosecutors as part of her plea deal, alleged that Bryant directed her to make the payment to Favre in a bombshell response to the complaint in July.

The allegation and defense “are not based on speculation or conjecture,” the Monday court filing reads. “The evidence suggests that MDHS Executives, including Governor Bryant, knew that Favre was seeking funds from MDHS to build the Volleyball Facility … and participated in directing, approving, or providing Favre MDHS funds to be used for construction of the Volleyball Facility.”

The latest motion, filed on behalf of New’s nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center, represents the first time these messages, which include texts directly between New and Bryant and New and Favre, have been made public. The messages are printed here exactly as they appear in the filing without corrections.

In July, the attorney for New and the nonprofit, Gerry Bufkin, filed a subpoena on Bryant asking for the former governor’s communication related to the volleyball project.

On Aug. 26, Bryant’s recently-hired attorney Billy Quin filed an objection to the subpoena, refusing to turn over the records without a protective order. Quin argued that Bryant’s texts are protected by executive privilege and that producing them to the public would run afoul of existing gag orders in the criminal cases.

Bufkin’s latest motion includes texts that the attorney picked, not entire text threads, and may only reflect one side of the story. In a short statement to Mississippi Today for this story, Bryant didn’t offer an explanation for his communication.

“(The New defense team’s) refusal to agree to a protective order, along with their failure to convey the Governor’s position to the court, unfortunately shows they are more concerned with pretrial publicity than they are with civil justice,” Bryant said.

Bufkin’s motion asks for the court to compel Bryant to produce the documents, arguing they are central to New’s defense.

“Defendant reasonably relied on then-Governor Phil Bryant, acting within his broad statutory authority as chief executive of the State,” reads New’s July response to the complaint, “including authority over MDHS and TANF, and his extensive knowledge of Permissible TANF Expenditures from 12 years as State Auditor, four years as Lieutenant Governor, and a number of years as Governor leading up to and including the relevant time period.”

Bufkin told Mississippi Today that the governor’s involvement in building the volleyball stadium, suggested by the text messages, “lends an air of credibility to the project, which is important to our defenses.”

“We do not believe a protective order shielding the Governor’s documents from public view, and thus limiting our ability to use them in open court or public pleadings in support of our defenses, is appropriate,” Bufkin said.

Federal regulations prohibit states from using money from the welfare program, called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), on “brick and mortar,” or the construction of buildings.

The scheme to circumvent federal regulations in order to build the volleyball stadium has already resulted in a criminal conviction.

New’s son Zach New admitted in his April plea agreement to defrauding the government when he participated in a scheme “to disguise the USM construction project as a ‘lease’ as a means of circumventing the limited purpose grant’s strict prohibition against ‘brick and mortar’ construction projects in violation of Miss. Code Ann. 97-7-10.”

Favre’s attorney Bud Holmes denied that the athlete knew the money he received was from the welfare fund. “Brett Favre has been honorable throughout this whole thing,” Holmes said Monday.

When Mississippi Today asked Favre by text in 2020 if he had discussed the volleyball project with the governor, Favre said, simply: “No.”

Former NFL football player Brett Favre, welfare officials and University of Southern Mississippi staffers met in July of 2017 to discuss the welfare agency funding the construction of a multi-million dollar volleyball stadium on campus. From left to right, attendees of the gathering were former professional wrestler Ted “Teddy” DiBiase, MDHS deputy Garrig Sheilds, then-USM Director of Athletics Jon Gilbert, Mississippi Community Education Center founder Nancy New, then-MDHS Director John Davis, Favre, another university staffer and Zach New.

The motion filed Monday offers a detailed look at the earliest days of the planning of the USM volleyball center between Favre, New, Davis and other key players — a chronology that had not up to this point been publicly revealed.

Favre first asked for funding from Mississippi Department of Human Services during a July 24, 2017, meeting at USM with New, Davis, university athletic staff and others, according to the motion.

By this time, the University of Southern Mississippi and the Southern Miss Athletic Foundation, which would pay for the construction, had already made some progress on Favre’s idea. On July 1, according to records, the university leased its athletic facilities and fields to the foundation for $1, which made it possible for the foundation to lease the facilities to the New nonprofit for $5 million.

Because of the strict prohibition on using TANF funds to pay for construction, the parties had to craft an agreement that would look to satisfy federal law and give the illusion they were helping needy families. With the help of legal advice from MDHS attorneys, they came up with the idea for New’s nonprofit to enter a $5 million up-front lease of the university’s athletic facilities, which the nonprofit would purportedly use for programming. And in exchange, the foundation would include offices for the nonprofit inside the volleyball facility, which they called a “Wellness Center.”

Davis immediately committed $4 million to the project, according to the motion.

“While Favre was pleased with MDHS’s $4 million commitment, he knew a state-of-the-art Volleyball Facility was likely to cost more,” the filing reads. “To make matters worse, USM apparently had a policy that any construction project on campus had to be funded fully, and the money deposited in USM’s account, before construction could begin.”

Favre thought of a way to get some extra cash to the program: even more money could flow through his company in exchange for the athlete cutting ads for the state’s welfare program. New said she thought it was a good idea.

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

Only days after Favre received the financial commitment from Davis, he “had grown impatient with USM, which was moving slowly. Favre contacted Governor Bryant to speed things along. In response, Governor Bryant called Nancy New,” the motion reads.

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

The governor remained in tune on the project as it progressed. On Nov. 2, 2017, New texted Favre, “I saw the Gov last night … it’s all going to work out.”

Four days later, New’s nonprofit paid the first lump sum of $2.5 million. It paid another $2.5 million on Dec. 5, 2017, according to the state auditor’s office report released in 2020. Favre also received his first payment under the advertising agreement of $500,000 in December 2017.

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

The nonprofit paid the athlete another $600,000 in June 2018.

By 2019, as the cost of construction for the volleyball center grew and Favre had committed to pay more than $1 million himself that he expected to receive from MDHS, the athlete became antsy. According to a calendar entry entered by Davis, Bryant and Favre requested to meet with welfare officials about the USM facility in January of 2019.

An emailed calendar invite obtained by Mississippi Today shows Mississippi Department of Human Services Director John Davis invited his colleague, former wrestler Ted DiBiase, to meet at Nancy New’s office to discuss topics of interest to Brett Favre and the governor.

Favre nudged the welfare officials who promised to help, but the state agency and nonprofits were in financial turmoil. Months went by with no USM payments.

In June of 2019, Bryant ousted Davis after an MDHS employee came forward with a tip about suspected fraud. Bryant replaced Davis with former FBI Special Agent in Charge Christopher Freeze. 

When Favre asked Bryant if Davis’ departure would affect the project, according to the motion, the governor responded, “I will handle that… long story but had to make a change. But I will call Nancy and see what it will take.”

“Just left Brett Favre,” Bryant then texted New. “Can we help him with his project. We should meet soon to see how I can make sure we keep your projects on course.”

Later that day, New texted Favre to tell him that she would be meeting with the governor in two days.

“He wants me to continue to help you and us get our project done,” she said.

With the new guard in place at the top of the welfare agency, Favre and New tried to put together a proposal for more volleyball funding that would pass the smell test. Part of their plan was to put Bryant’s name on the building, according to one text from New to Favre. Favre relayed to New that Bryant said New would have to submit proper paperwork to MDHS.

“While the Governor’s text to Favre said New needed to ‘get the paperwork in,’ the Governor confided to Favre on a call that he had already seen Favre’s proposal. Favre texted New, ‘[the Governor] said to me just a second ago that he has seen [the funding proposal] but hint hint that you need to reword it to get it accepted,” reads New’s motion.

New had questions about how to reword the proposal, but instead of having a conversation directly with the governor, she relied on what the governor would tell Favre, the texts show.

“Hopefully she can put more details in the proposal,” Bryant said, according to a text Favre forwarded to New. “Like how many times the facility will be used and how many child will be served and for what specific purpose.”

Favre later texted, “I really feel like he is trying to figure out a way to get it done without actually saying it.”

Favre, New, Bryant and Freeze met in September 2019 to discuss progress on the new facility.

Though the texts illustrate the governor’s support for the program around that time, Bryant said in an April 2022 interview with Mississippi Today that he rejected the request from New and Favre fund the project further.

“I stood up and I said, ‘No,’” Bryant told Mississippi Today. “… I remember a meeting with Nancy New and Chris (Freeze), and maybe it was another one, and me. And she came in one more time, ‘Volleyball, volleyball.’ And she said, ‘My budgets have been cut and I can’t do all of these things … And that’s another thing: ‘Budgets are cut,’ so I’m thinking somebody’s watching over spending. And then she said, ‘And oh, by the way, can we have the money for the volleyball?’ And I said, ‘No. No, we’re not spending anything right now. That is terminated.’”

Two days after the meeting, New received a letter from the welfare agency informing her that the agency was increasing her TANF subgrant by $1.1 million, which the letter said was for the purpose of reimbursing payments the nonprofit made to its partners. 

Under Freeze, MDHS reinstated its bid process for TANF subgrants. Though New’s nonprofit was under investigation, and had been raided by the auditor’s office months earlier, the welfare agency notified New in December of 2019 that she had won another grant for the coming year. That month, Bryant texted New to ask if she had received the award.

“Yes, we did,” New responded to the former governor. “From all the craziness going on, we had been made to believe we were not getting refunded. But we did. ‘Someone’ was definitely pulling for us behind the scenes. Thank you.”

Bryant responded with a smiley face.

In early 2020, as funding to the nonprofits slowed and Bryant entered the waning days in his final term as governor, Favre and state officials scrambled to come up with the funds to finish the USM volleyball project. Communication obtained by Mississippi Today shows that another state agency that had been receiving grants from the welfare department joined talks of funding the remainder of the construction.

New sent Favre’s funding request to Andrea Mayfield, then-director of the Mississippi Community College Board.

“I am at a loss right now,” New wrote, “and am honestly trying to save coworkers’ jobs, too. Are we closer on a lease, etc. for him. Sorry to have to ask this as I know everybody is doing everything they can. Thank y’all.”

Mayfield proposed having the USM athletic foundation front the $556,000 that the builders needed, and then be reimbursed by various state agencies through monthly rent payments.

“I can work each agency to execute a contract. Once they execute a contract with me, I can quickly execute with MCEC. I am sorry it is taking time. I am at the mercy of each partners schedule. Thoughts?” Mayfield texted USM Athletic Director Jeremy McClain, according to the message she forwarded to New and Favre.

“Let me know,” Favre responded, “and we have a few weeks until it’s finished. If need be Deanna and I will just pay it. If the university will at least Agree on a deal maybe we can get some funding fairly quickly.”

It’s unclear if any more federal grants went to Favre or the athletic foundation after this point.

Bufkin isn’t the only person who has subpoenaed the former governor’s communication related to the volleyball project. Attorney Brad Pigott, who originally represented the state’s welfare department in the civil suit, also subpoenaed the athletic foundation for its communication with Bryant or his wife Deborah Bryant – and was fired from the case as a result.

Pigott previously called the $5 million agreement between the New nonprofit and the athletic foundation “a sham, fraudulent, so-called lease agreement” in which the parties pretended that the purpose of the deal was for the nonprofit to provide services at the facilities, “all of which was a lie,” Pigott said.

Pigott said he believed his firing was political. Reeves and his current welfare agency director have waffled on their reason for terminating Pigott

The state’s civil case, which seeks to recoup $24 million from 38 people or organizations, appears to have slowed since Pigott’s firing. The athletic foundation is not named as defendant and the volleyball stadium is not discussed once in the complaint. The state canceled and has not rescheduled several depositions that were supposed to take place this month — including one with Favre. 

“People are going to go to jail over this, at least the state should be willing to find out the truth of what happened,” Pigott told Mississippi Today after his firing in July.

It’s unclear how the athletic foundation has responded, if at all, to either Bufkin or the state’s subpoena, as no related filings appear in the case file. Objections to subpoenas, such as Bryant’s, are not entered into court. If a subpoenaed entity produces documents as requested, those documents could also go directly to the requesting parties and would not appear in the public court file.

The FBI is still investigating the welfare scandal, but officials haven’t publicly indicated which figures they might be pursuing. recently nominated Todd Gee to serve as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, a position that has been vacant for nearly two years. Gee, a Vicksburg native, will inherit the welfare investigation in his new job after serving as the deputy chief of the Public Integrity Section of the U.S. Department of Justice since 2018.

Gee previously served as lead counsel for the House Homeland Security Committee under chair U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, who in July wrote a letter to U.S. Merrick Garland asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Bryant’s role in the welfare scheme.

Shad White, the state auditor who originally investigated the case, was appointed by and formerly served as a campaign manager for Bryant. Shortly after his office arrested New, Davis and four others for their alleged roles in the scheme, White publicly called Bryant the whistleblower in the case.

Asked on Monday how he would characterize Bryant’s role in the scandal now, White said, “I wouldn’t because we don’t know everything that’s going to come out ultimately.”

“I would just let the public decide how they interpret his actions over the course of that entire thing,” White said. “You know, really, if you think back about the corpus of events here that happened, a lot of it has been put out in the . And so I think anybody who’s reading the newspaper can look at that and say, ‘OK, people at DHS did this right, and they did this wrong. People in the governor’s office did this right, and they did that wrong.’ And they can decide.”

“That’s not for me to decide what somebody’s legacy is,” White added.

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

Judge denies state auditor’s motion to dismiss defamation case by Ole Miss professor


Judge denies state auditor’s motion to dismiss defamation case by Ole Miss professor

A Circuit Court judge has denied State Auditor Shad White’s motion to dismiss a defamation brought by University of Mississippi Professor James Thomas. 

In his January 2021 motion, White alleged he could not be sued for defamation for allegations he made that Thomas, by participating in a two-day event called a “Scholar Strike,” violated state law prohibiting public employees from striking. 

White argued that as a state executive officer, he is entitled to a legal doctrine known as “absolute immunity” – the complete protection from liability for actions committed in the course of his official duties – even though he acknowledged no Mississippi court has considered the issue. 

Judge E. Faye Peterson was not persuaded, writing that Mississippi law is clear state officers have “no absolute privilege for any and all comments,” only those made during legislative, judicial and military proceedings. 

“Hence, Shad White is not entitled to absolute immunity for any and all statements which he makes as a state governmental official,” Peterson wrote in a Sept. 2 order. “That blanket theory of immunity has not been recognized by our courts, nor does it comport with the laws of this state.” 

Peterson added that “to the continued detriment” of White’s defense, Mississippi courts have found that immunity does not extend “to fraud, malice, libel, slander, defamation or any criminal offense.” 

Peterson declined to issue a declaratory judgment just yet on whether or not Thomas’ participation in the Scholar Strike actually violated state law – a key argument in his case for defamation.

Fletcher Freeman, a spokesperson for the state auditor’s office, said White and his counsel from the ’s office will “continue defense against this case.” 

“Auditor White absolutely has a right to tell people when they misspend money, which is what Thomas’ lawsuit is about,” Freeman wrote in an email. 

The lawsuit filed in December 2020 centers on White’s claims that Thomas participated in an “illegal” work stoppage on Sept. 8 and Sept. 9, 2020, and thus violated state law. White sent Thomas a letter demanding he repay $1,912 – his salary and interest – for the two days and another letter asking the University of Mississippi chancellor to consider termination. 

READ MORE: Auditor Shad White says a professor broke state law. The professor is now suing White for defamation.

Thomas’ initial complaint alleged this was defamation in part because it was false of White to claim that the Scholar Strike was illegal.

According to state code, a strike is an action taken “for the purpose of inducing, influencing or coercing a change in the conditions, compensation, rights, privileges or obligations of public employment.” 

Thomas’ participation in the Scholar Strike was intended to highlight racism and injustice in the United States, not to change his working conditions, according to the initial complaint. 

“Shad White falsely claimed that Professor Thomas violated the law against public employee strikes when it was clear to anyone who could read that he didn’t,” said Rob McDuff, an attorney with the who is representing Thomas. 

White’s motion to dismiss argued that a declaratory judgment would be improper because “there are no ongoing legal relations between the parties to be clarified or settled.” Furthermore, it would “set a precedent inimical to the orderly and efficient disposition of Auditor demands.” 

“This will effectively create a need for expedited review (and potential defense) by the of all Auditor demands referred for non-payment, regardless of whether the Attorney General may otherwise have ultimately elected not to pursue a given claim—an inefficient use of State resources,” the motion states. 

Thomas’ lawsuit does not ask for a set amount of monetary damages and says a jury should decide in the event White is found liable. 

“If the jury says he should pay one dollar, that is fine,” the complaint says. “If the jury orders payment of more money, that is fine too.” 

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

Biden appoints U.S. attorney who will inherit welfare investigation


Biden appoints new U.S. attorney who will inherit welfare scandal investigation

has nominated Todd Gee to serve as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, a post that has been vacant since appointee Mike Hurst resigned in January 2021.

Gee, a native of Vicksburg, has served as deputy chief of the Public Integrity Section of the Department of Justice 2018. He previously served as an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., from 2007 to 2015, and before that as counsel and policy advisor for the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security.

Gee, if confirmed by the U.S. Senate, will take office as the federal government is reportedly investigating the massive welfare scandal in Mississippi, where his background in the Public Integrity Section of DOJ might come into play. The Public Integrity Section, created in 1976 after the Watergate scandal, prosecutes criminal abuses of public trust by government officials. It investigates and prosecutes alleged misconduct of public officials in all three branches of federal government, plus state and local public officials.

Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs said he was pleased Gee received the appointment.

“He is a great person for that job,” Flaggs said. “He has always been an intellectual young man. Todd Gee will adhere to the law.”

Flaggs said Gee’s grandfather, Nathaniel Bullard, served as mayor of Vicksburg from 1973 until 1977 and also was a chancery judge. He had another relative who was a district attorney.

“He comes from a family of lawyers,” Flaggs said.

The Vicksburg mayor said U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson of the 2nd District of Mississippi, the chair of the House Homeland Security Committee where Gee previously served as lead counsel, supported the nomination and recently announced the pending nomination at a civics club meeting in Vicksburg.

Earlier Thompson wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice following Mississippi Today’s series The Backchannel, which broke new details on the welfare scandal. In the letter, Thompson asked federal authorities to specifically investigate the role of former Gov. Phil Bryant in the welfare misspending or .

READ MORE: Congressman asks feds to investigate former Gov. Phil Bryant’s welfare spending influence

“My understanding is all of the allegations that have been made are currently under investigation,” Thompson told Mississippi Today Friday when asked if the U.S. had responded to his letter. “Actually there’s a report in the press that the FBI has already engaged some of the people … When the neediest citizens are compromised by what happened with the TANF (welfare) funds, we have to make sure that those perpetrators of that illegal activity are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. 

Thompson continued: “I don’t care if you’re a quarterback on a football team, if you are governor of the state of Mississippi, or if you like volleyball — those things shouldn’t be spent and supported by TANF dollars. I have a very vulnerable district in the state. Those dollars were intended to make life better for families in need. I don’t know how those individuals who took that money can sleep at night knowing they took resources from the neediest people.”

READ MORE: Gov. Phil Bryant directed $1.1 million welfare payment to Brett Favre, defendant says

Biden also announced two nominees for U.S. Marshal for the Northern and Southern districts of Mississippi. Michael Purnell, who has served many years with the , was nominated for the Northern District. Dale Bale, a professional protection officer for a private security service in Hernando, was nominated for Southern District Marshal. Bale previously served with the , and the Sheriff’s Department.

All the appointments announced Friday require confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

Other key federal posts remain open in Mississippi. Biden has not announced a nominee for U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Mississippi.

Plus, a federal judgeship remains open in the Northern District. Judge Michael Mills of the Northern District announced in November he was taking senior status, creating an open judgeship.

READ MORE: Phil Bryant had his sights on a payout as welfare funds flowed to Brett Favre

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

5th Circuit upholds Jim Crow-era law to keep Black Mississippians from voting


5th Circuit upholds Jim Crow-era law written to keep Black Mississippians from voting

Editor’s note: This story contains graphic language.

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a lower court ruling allowing a provision of the 1890 Mississippi Constitution designed to keep African Americans from to remain in place.

The provision places a lifetime ban on voting in most instances on people convicted of certain felonies — crimes that the framers of the 1890 state Constitution said Black Mississippians were more prone to commit.

The framers did not disenfranchise people convicted of murder or rape, for instance, but did strip voting rights of people convicted of several “lesser crimes,” which the writers of the Constitution falsely believed would be committed by African Americans.

The “per curiam” or unsigned opinion of the 5th Circuit said because of actions taken by the Legislature in the 1950s and 1960s allowing voters a chance to amend the constitutional provision, among other things adding murder and rape as disenfranchising crimes, the provision no longer has a racist taint.

“Plaintiffs have not demonstrated that Section 241 as it currently stands was motivated by discriminatory intent or that any other approach to demonstrating the provision’s unconstitutionality is viable,” the majority said.

The majority opinion also cited the Legislature taking up the issue in the 1980s and opting not to change it.

The provision was defended on behalf of the state by the office of Attorney General Lynn Fitch.

The among other groups brought the on behalf of two Black Mississippians who had lost the right to vote: Roy Harness and Kamal Karriem, convicted of forgery and embezzlement, respectively.

“This provision was a part of the 1890 plan to take the vote away from Black people who had attained it in the wake of the ,” said Rob McDuff, director of the Impact Litigation Project at the Mississippi Center for Justice. “Unfortunately, the Court of Appeals is allowing it to remain in place despite its racist origins. Despite this setback, we will continue this battle and seek review in the .”

The case was considered by 17 members of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, considered one of the most conservative judiciaries in the nation. Oral arguments were held in the case in September 2021 in New Orleans.

In a statement, Fitch’s office said, “We are pleased with the court’s decision.  As the court noted, ‘Plaintiffs’ proposal that a state constitutional amendment must be voted on word for word to avoid any vestigial racial taint is radically prescriptive…. No subsequent case law supports plaintiffs’ novel, judicially crafted political theory of public consent.'”

”Seven of the 17 members dissented with the majority opinion. Circuit Judge James Graves Jr., previously a member of the , wrote a lengthy dissent detailing the state’s sordid racist past, including events from the 1960s when the Legislature allowed the electorate to vote on the constitutional provision. That vote allowed murder and rape to be added as disenfranchising crimes, but did not give the electorate the opportunity to vote on whether other changes needed to be made to the provision or whether the entire Jim Crow provision should be stricken from the Constitution.

As part of Graves’ history of the state’s racial past, he cited progress that led to the election of Black officials — including him as a judge — and led to the replacement of the old Mississippi state that contained the battle emblem as part of its design.

Citing that the state had not been allowed to vote on the provision, Graves wrote: “Mississippians have simply not been given the chance to right the wrongs of its racist origins. And this court … deprives Mississippians of this opportunity by upholding an unconstitutional law enacted for the purpose of discriminating against Black Mississippians on the basis of race.”

In his opening, Graves quoted segregationist former Mississippi Gov. James K. Vardaman.

“There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter … Mississippi’s constitutional convention of 1890 was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the nigger from politics … In Mississippi we have in our Constitution legislated against the racial peculiarities of the Negro … When that device fails, we will resort to something else.”

In Mississippi, people with felony convictions must petition the Legislature to get a bill passed by a two-thirds majority of both chambers to regain voting rights. Normally only a handful (less than five) of such bills are successful each session. There is also the option of the governor granting a pardon to restore voting rights, but no governor has granted pardons since Haley Barbour in 2012.

For a subset of those who lose their rights, the courts can expunge their record. In some instances that expungement includes the restoration of voting rights, while for others it does not. That outcome depends on the preference of the judge granting the expungement.

Those crimes placed in the Constitution where conviction costs a person the right to vote are bribery, , arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, forgery, embezzlement, bigamy and burglary.

Under the original language of the Constitution, a person could be convicted of cattle rustling and lose the right to vote, but those convicted of murder or rape would still be able to vote — even while incarcerated.

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

Johnson sworn in as first woman judge in Mississippi’s southern district


Johnson sworn in as first woman judge in Mississippi’s southern district

The first woman judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi has joined the bench. 

A formal investiture ceremony was held last week for Judge Kristi Haskins Johnson of Brandon. 

“This truly was a lifelong dream of mine,” Johnson said about her appointment in a February 2021 article by her alma mater, the University of Mississippi. 

She was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in Nov. 2020 by a 53 to 43 vote. 

Johnson previously worked as Mississippi’s first solicitor general. She also worked for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Jackson as an assistant U.S. attorney. 

From 2008 to 2010, Johnson clerked for Judge Sharion Aycock of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi — the state’s first woman federal district court judge. Johnson also clerked for Judge Leslie Southwick of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Elected officials including Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, the first woman to represent Mississippi in Congress, and Lynn Fitch, the first woman in her role, praised Johnson after her Senate confirmation. 

“Judge Johnson, as you exercise your power, I pray that God will grant you wisdom, humility, compassion and courage. Congratulations!” Hyde-Smith wrote in a Friday tweet after she attended Johnson’s investiture ceremony. 

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

Brandon Presley boasts list of noteworthy campaign donors


Brandon Presley, a potential candidate for governor, boasts list of noteworthy campaign donors

Brandon Presley of Nettleton will host a political fundraiser on Thursday featuring a diverse and noteworthy group of donors — especially noteworthy for a campaign for the down-ticket office of Northern District Public Service commissioner.

The fundraiser, which will be held in Tupelo at the birthplace and of Brandon Presley’s famous cousin Elvis, will net at least $209,000, based on the level of commitment of donors listed on an invitation card.

Whether the 94 people named on the fundraiser invitation are donating to Presley’s 2023 reelection campaign to the three-member Public Service Commission or to another post is not clear.

Presley has long been rumored as a possible Democratic candidate for governor — presumably against Republican incumbent Tate Reeves in 2023.

But Presley still is publicly non-committal.

“I am concentrating on trying to get internet to every household in the state, trying to keep utility rates affordable during this time of high inflation,” Presley told Mississippi Today. “I am trying to work on things that make a difference for average Mississippians.”

He also has been active in trying to ensure all Mississippians have access to safe water.

If Presley does opt to run for governor, presumably against Reeves, the Democrat will need multiple fundraising efforts like what will be held at the Elvis birthplace and museum on Thursday.

PODCAST: Will 2023 governor’s race be ‘all shook up’ by Brandon Presley?

In each of his five statewide campaigns, Reeves has had overwhelming fundraising advantages over his opponents. In his 2019 campaign for governor, Reeves outspent his Democratic opponent, former Jim Hood, $15.6 million to $5.2 million.

But interestingly, a handful of members of Reeves’ 2019 Finance Committee are listed as donors for Presley’s Thursday fund-raiser in Tupelo. They include Amory businessman Barry Wax, Johnny Crane of and Colin Maloney of Tupelo.

Wax, a longtime Republican donor, is listed as donating at least $10,000 for the Tupelo fundraiser and donated $25,000 to Presley during calendar year 2021.

Based on the January campaign finance filings with the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office, Reeves had $4.8 million in cash on hand to $520,000 for Presley. At the same time period before the 2019 gubernatorial election, Hood had $656,393 cash on hand while Reeves, then lieutenant governor, had $5.4 million.

But among the standouts of Presley’s fundraising to date is the number of Republicans who have written him checks.

Of the campaign donors, “We are fortunate to include a large group of Republicans and we always appreciate the support of all the solid Democrats and the independents,” Presley said. “I have always tried to be the type of elected official who reaches across the aisle to try to find solutions … I have tried not to get caught up in the echo chamber.”

Presley added, the donors “are people I know.”

The next filing of campaign finance reports is not scheduled until January 2023. But in 2023, an election year, there will be many more required filing of campaign finance reports with the Secretary of State’s office.

READ MORE: Can Brandon Presley be the statewide winner Democrats can’t seem to find?

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

Welfare: new counsel for civil suit hired, defense objects


Welfare agency hires new counsel for civil suit, defense attorney objects

The Mississippi State Personnel Board gave the state’s welfare department the green light Thursday to hire new legal counsel for its high-profile civil to recoup millions in misspent welfare funds.

Jackson-based law firm Jones Walker will replace former U.S. Attorney Brad Pigott, the contract attorney who initially crafted the lawsuit, after the Gov. Tate Reeves administration abruptly removed Pigott from the case last month. The new one-year contract is for up to $400,000, with partners working on the case earning a rate of $305-an-hour. Pigott’s contract was for up to $75,000 for the previous year.

One defense attorney on the case is criticizing the state for using taxpayer money in its pursuit of many low-level characters in the overarching welfare scandal. The attorney, Jim Waide, is also raising questions about how the new contract will ensure that Reeves is not controlling the case to the extent that he would prevent other potential parties, including himself and former Gov. Phil Bryant, from being included as defendants if the attorneys deemed that appropriate. Mississippi Today has uncovered communication connecting certain welfare expenditures to both Bryant and Reeves.

Mississippi Department of Human Services is suing 38 people or companies, including former NFL quarterback Brett Favre and three retired WWE wrestlers, who it says were responsible for misspending roughly $24 million from a federal grant called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

“They (Jones Walker) will vigorously pursue this case—wherever it leads,” Gov. Reeves said in a statement following the contract approval. “They will eagerly cooperate with those criminal investigators whose mission is to get truth and justice for the misconduct that occurred during the previous administration. And they will leave no stone unturned in the effort to recover misspent TANF funds.”

In the personnel board meeting, Mississippi Department of Human Services Director Bob Anderson said he believes the agency needs a larger legal team as the litigation moves into the discovery and trial phases. Anderson had previously justified Pigott’s removal by saying the attorney failed to communicate with the agency about a subpoena he filed on University of Southern Mississippi athletic foundation.

Anderson said the new attorneys who will be handling the case, Kaytie Pickett and Adam Stone, have experience in complex commercial litigation as well as procurement-related matters.

“While Brad Pigott initiated and prepared the original complaint in this case, we believe that Jones Walker is who we need to finish the process of getting to final judgment and recovery of funds,” Anderson said in a written statement. “They have a deep bench and are well acquainted with complex electronic discovery platforms, which will be crucial in a case like this involving hundreds and thousands of documents.”

Jones Walker, like many large law firms across the state, is a frequent campaign donor to Mississippi politicians — including a total of at least $18,000 to Reeves, according to records on Locally, the firm used to be Watkins Ludlam Winter & before it merged with Jones Walker over a decade ago.

The ’s Office also had to approve the contract.

Waide, an attorney for a defendant in the case, wrote a letter to the personnel board before the meeting criticizing the state’s decision to hire a new law firm and urging the board not to approve a contract that wastes taxpayer funds. Waide represents Austin Smith, the nephew of the former MDHS director John Davis, who is facing criminal charges in the scheme.

Hardwick, director of the personnel board, said the board reviewed the letter, but that “that’s outside of anything we would consider.”

Hardwick said the Jones Walker contract was within the state’s procurement guidelines and regulations.

Waide had recently filed an objection to the state’s motion to withdraw Pigott as counsel and asked that the court examine whether Reeves is controlling the lawsuit to protect himself and his supporters. The filing came after Mississippi Today uncovered text messages connecting the current governor to the funding of fitness trainer Paul Lacoste, a defendant in the case. Lacoste’s organization received $1.3 million, more than $300,000 of which went to Lacoste personally, according to records, to conduct fitness classes for roughly eight months in 2019. Then-Lt. Gov. Reeves attended the boot camp while texts show Lacoste used his relationship with Reeves to endear himself to the welfare director.

Previous reporting also showed that Reeves’ office directed MDHS to remove the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation, whose board is made up of several Reeves donors, from the suit before it was filed. The foundation used $5 million in welfare funds to build a volleyball stadium on campus.

“…the governor himself is a potential defendant,” Waide wrote to the personnel board. “Because of the potential financial interest of the governor, he should hire his own attorney, and should not be furnished an attorney at taxpayer expense.”

In his statement, Anderson noted that Jones Walker will be tasked with, among other things, evaluating claims against additional potential defendants. Several law firms Anderson spoke with could not take the case because of conflicts.

Waide also called into question why Attorney General Lynn Fitch, the state’s official litigator, is not handling the case.

“Unless the Attorney General has a conflict of interest, there is no reason why she should not pursue this suit without costing the taxpayers,” Waide wrote.

Waide also argued that if MDHS hires a law firm to represent the state, it should pay the firm based on what they recoup in the litigation, not a set fee, especially since so many of the defendants will likely not be able to pay the potential damages. An attorney under a contingency arrangement might be more likely to pursue other entities that received welfare funds — such as the USM athletic foundation — who received larger amounts of money and would be more likely able to return the funds.

“An hourly fee arrangement with any firm will likely result in the expensive pursuit of low-level defendants, such as Austin Smith and others, who have no means to pay a judgement. On the other hand, an attorney hired on a contingent fee basis would pursue those who are financially able to pay a judgement, and would cost the taxpayers nothing if no funds are recovered.”

Jones Walker did not return calls to Mississippi Today for this story.

“This work is just beginning, and it may take years—but we will follow the facts wherever they go and pursue it for as long as it takes,” said Reeves’ statement Thursday. “That is what the state has done since I took office, and we will continue to do it aggressively.”

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

Defendant: Tate Reeves should be target of welfare lawsuit


Defendant: Gov. Tate Reeves should be target of welfare lawsuit — not in charge of it

A defendant in Mississippi’s civil to recoup millions in misspent welfare money is asking the court to examine whether Gov. Tate Reeves is controlling the case to protect himself and his supporters.

After Mississippi Today uncovered text messages Friday that connect the current governor to the funding of a defendant in the case, attorney Jim Waide argued Monday that Reeves should be a target of the lawsuit — not in charge of it.

The texts show former welfare director John Davis, who is facing criminal charges in the welfare scandal, said he was fulfilling then-Lt. Gov. Reeves’ wishes when he funneled over $1 million to Reeves’ fitness trainer, a defendant in the suit.

READ MORE: Gov. Tate Reeves inspired welfare payment targeted in civil suit, texts show

The Reeves administration also recently fired the attorney bringing the welfare suit, former U.S. Attorney Brad Pigott, after the attorney attempted to subpoena the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation for its communication with, among others, former Gov. Phil Bryant. Bryant oversaw the welfare department when the scandal occurred.

Reeves’ staff had already forced Pigott to remove the athletic foundation, whose board is made up of many Reeves supporters and campaign donors, from the suit before he filed it.

“It is an abuse of power for to frustrate a state agency’s collecting monies owed it in order to protect his financial supporters,” wrote Waide, the Tupelo-based attorney representing Davis’ nephew Austin Smith, who received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the agency during his uncle’s administration. “It is an abuse of power for Governor Reeves to direct litigation in which he is a necessary party defendant.”

The suit targets 38 individuals or companies, including former NFL quarterback Brett Favre and three retired WWE wrestlers, in an attempt to claw back about $24 million in misspent funds from a federal block grant called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, which is supposed to serve the state’s poorest residents. The suit is based on a forensic audit that found $77 million worth of fraud or misspending. There are separate criminal cases against six defendants, four of whom have pleaded guilty and agreed to aid prosecutors in the ongoing state and federal criminal investigations. 

Mississippi Today’s investigation “The Backchannel” provides evidence of former Gov. Bryant’s involvement in the scandal and one of the defendants in both the civil and criminal cases, nonprofit founder Nancy New, alleged that Bryant directed her to pay Favre. State and federal authorities reached their plea deal with New days after Mississippi Today’s series finished publishing in April.

Pigott, who had been on the civil case for a year and filed the suit in May, told Mississippi Today he believed his firing was political. Reeves confirmed as much, saying he believed Pigott, a semi-retired former President Bill Clinton appointee, was the one with a political agenda

Mississippi Department of Human Services, the agency bringing the lawsuit, is prepared to hire Jackson-based law firm Jones Walker to replace Pigott on the case. The State Personnel Board is expected to review the contract, which the must also approve, at its Aug. 18 meeting. MDHS has not released the contract or its dollar amount.

“MDHS worked quickly to identify a firm that would continue the important civil litigation,” reads a statement from the agency.

In a motion opposing Pigott’s withdrawal, Waide argues that Reeves has an interest in protecting members of the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation, which is curiously absent from the suit despite receiving $5 million in welfare funds to build a volleyball stadium on campus on behalf of Favre – an alleged violation of federal regulations, at the least. Mississippi Today reported that several members of the foundation’s board are Reeves campaign donors.

Citing a recent Mississippi Today article, Waide also asserts that Reeves “also has a financial interest in this case because he played a substantial role in obtaining welfare funds (TANF funds) for Defendant Paul Victor Lacoste.”

Waide’s filing Monday asks for a hearing to determine:

  • Whether Reeves unlawfully caused Pigott’s firing because Pigott was gathering evidence against Reeves supporters
  • Whether Reeves caused the allegedly illegal payments to Lacoste, and should therefore be added as a defendant to the suit
  • Whether Reeves is trying to steer the department to hire a new firm that will protect his supporters and focus on lower-level figures
  • Whether the court should intervene to prevent Reeves from controlling the case
  • Whether the state should be forced to hire a new firm on a contingency basis only to prevent any more use of taxpayer money on the case

Waide, who filed a similar motion in July arguing that Bryant should be a defendant in the suit based on Mississippi Today’s reporting, also said in his most recent filing that most of the current defendants do not have the assets necessary for the state to successfully recoup damages.

But the civil suit also serves the purpose of finding answers for the public, especially since there have been no criminal trials more than two years after the initial arrests.

Pigott had set several dates in the following weeks for depositions in the civil case, but the state has since canceled those. Meanwhile, Davis has filed a motion to stay, which is pending and will determine if the case will be postponed until after the criminal cases conclude. 

Waide also filed on Monday a separate objection to Davis’ motion to stay, arguing that any delay is not in the public interest.

“A stay will delay and frustrate discovery so as to cause all necessary defendants not to be joined, including both former Governor Bryant and Governor Reeves,” Waide wrote.

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

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