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In ‘South to America,’ Imani Perry seeks to understand a region ‘so varying it can seem endless’

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In ‘South to America,’ Imani Perry seeks to understand a region ‘so varying it can seem endless’

Imani Perry

Imani Perry’s argument in “South to America” will feel familiar to any Southerner, or to anyone at all, who has ever been startled by the cheerful dismissals of the region you sometimes encounter elsewhere in the United States. “I’d never want to go to the South,” people up north have said when I told them where I’m from, as if it is a singular place uniformly deserving of disinterest or contempt. Perry, a native of Birmingham, Ala., argues that this tendency to treat the South – and especially its brutal history of racist exploitation and violence – as excisable from the rest of the country is a convenient fantasy. 

The argument will also be familiar to anyone who has read much about the modern history of “the South” — a label that can sometimes feel more theoretical than lived, given the diversity of the place. As Perry writes, “The South is so varying it can seem endless. And yet you will still know ‘Southern’ means something over and against other regions.”

Writers’ journeys here are often a quest to understand our under-examined, intentionally obscured or distorted history, from Tony Horowitz’s “Confederates in the Attic” (a book Perry criticizes for its softness on white re-enactors and their devotion to Lost Cause mythology) to Clint Smith’s recent “How the Word is Passed.” Perry is a professor of African American studies at Princeton University and author of books on Lorraine Hansberry and the Black National Anthem, and she is very clear about the tradition she follows: “South to America” was directly inspired by Albert Murray’s book “South to A Very Old Place,” first published in 1971. 

Murray was born and raised in Mobile and educated at Tuskegee University before moving to New York and making a career as an essayist, novelist and critic. During and after the movement, as Black writers and intellectuals debated whether the path forward was separatism or integration, Murray argued for the centrality of Black culture to American culture, and the unworkability of Black nationalism.

When “South to A Very Old Place” was published, the civil rights movement had wrought massive changes across the country, but their full significance was unclear. And though civil rights leaders had long highlighted the segregation and economic marginalization that characterized Black life in northern cities, the boundaries of the South were perhaps not as blurry as they are today. 

Perry’s view of the South as synecdoche-of-sorts for America feels salient in 2022. We remember the Confederate hoisted in the U.S. Capitol – a scene never witnessed during the – on Jan. 6. The man who carried it was from Delaware, a slave state that remained in the Union, though that fact is perhaps unimportant in an era when the Confederate flag flies across the country, no longer always or even often purporting to represent “southern pride.” 

Lawmakers in Wisconsin and Arizona join Georgians and Texans in plotting new ways to limit suffrage. The religious right, rooted in Southern evangelicalism, is ascendant. In the days after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. , the battle-worn and exhausted clinic escorts, helping the final patients make it to their appointments before the clock ran out on legal in the state, repeated some version of a bitter line: “Welcome to Mississippi, America.”

The southernization of American political life may also help explain why parts of Perry’s journey, 50 years after Murray’s, trigger similar reflections. In Atlanta, Murray visits a restaurant and is served uneventfully by a young white waitress. He thinks about what she would say if, say, Newsweek interviewed her about desegregation. He wouldn’t be surprised if she told them how “a white girl shouldn’t have to serve Negroes, and all that crap.” But then he asks: “Is what she says when interviewed on desegregation as a specific issue really more significant than the way she is acting right now with me sitting here?” 

At the Nashville airport, Perry approaches a vending machine and realizes a white man is waiting to restock it. “You can g’on and get you something,” he tells her, smiling. Perry thinks that based on his demographics, “the odds are he wouldn’t feel so warmly about me,” and that she would likely be “irked by the things he thinks about the world.” And yet there is still “the softness with which we could speak to one another.” “Whatever it is that I’m saying about the South as America includes that too.” A point that was optimistic in 1971 now feels nearly tragic. 

Murray beautifully rendered the speech of southerners, especially Black southerners in his hometown and from his university days at Tuskegee. Entire pages are filled with lengthy quotes from people he just let talk and talk. He compares the voices taking turns during a living room chat to a jazz ensemble. Perry seems to have spoken to fewer people, and her conversations with people she meets for the first time on her journey – as opposed to people she has long known as family friends or fellow writers – are often short. Their significance is sometimes derived from a heavy dose of speculation, like when a Lyft driver in Virginia becomes a symbol of toxic white evangelicalism after a strange but apparently brief exchange. 

Perry notes that her politics are quite different from those of Murray, who believed in an American identity built through all of its constitutive parts: a “nation of multi-colored people.” (When Toni Morrison reviewed “South to a Very Old Place” for the New York Times in 1972, she criticized his disinterest in “the Afro part of Afro-Americans:” “The history of black Americans neither begins nor ends in Mobile, Ala.; its true meaning will stay hidden from any black who does not know that there is another place even Souther and much, much older.”)

Perry instead draws connections between the Black South and the larger Black diaspora. In addition to 12 states and the District of Columbia, she travels to the Bahamas and Havana to show the historical and cultural linkages between the South and the Caribbean, and to gain perspective through distance. “We say the only difference between Black folks in various parts of the diaspora is where the boat stopped, but we don’t say that the boats, and the marches through land, didn’t ever stop…. There are rhythms that would be found here and there, though a different blend. This is, I think, the thing that Albert Murray got wrong about the South, even as he described those rhythms with a seriousness and a precision unlike anyone before and likely since.”

In Mississippi, Perry focuses on the city of Jackson, highlighting the historical ironies that surround those of us who live here to such a degree that we sometimes become inured to them. Jackson, Perry writes, “is part Chicago and mostly Mississippi, a place where, like the first Chokwe Lumumba, people reverse-migrate, either to start a revolution or because life in the North was too cold.” 

She describes the history of the New Afrikan People’s Organization, for which Lumumba was vice president, with “the goals of self-determination, land ownership, and an independent nation-state for New Afrikans” in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. Though the Black Power movement is often conceptualized as non-Southern, she points out that it is a Deep South capital that is led by a “scion of Black nationalism,” the younger Chokwe Lumumba. And Jackson, “unapologetically Black,” is the capital of the state with the country’s largest Black population and largest number of Black elected officials, and home to two Historically Black Colleges and Universities (Perry vividly describes the Sonic Boom of the South marching through the city streets). All this in the American state most synonymous with violence and murder in the name of white supremacy. 

Yet today the life expectancy for Black men in Mississippi is less than 67 years. Perry mentions, too, the Central American and Mexican poultry factory workers detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the largest raids in history. 

“We haven’t outrun or outlived the plantation, although it looks a little bit different… There’s an honesty to Mississippi about all of this. The triumph is not in ends, it is in the fact that we are still here.”

Perry is a featured panelist at the Mississippi Book on Aug. 20.

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

Everyday Products Made in Mississippi

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by Cherie Ward, Our Mississippi Home

The Magnolia State is known for many things.

An uber famous river. Dedicated sports fans. Tons of re-enactments with warm, friendly people. The state has been credited with starting the national , . It’s the birthplace of the teddy bear, Barq’s Root Bear, and of course, Elvis. (Yep, we are still taking credit for the King of Rock and Roll, and probably always…

This article first appeared on Our Mississippi Home.

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The forgotten gravesite of Elvis Presley’s twin brother

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by Meredith Biesinger, Our Mississippi Home

Mississippi is full of intriguing gravesites, from prominent people such as William Faulkner and Robert Johnson to soldiers, and several gravesites of everyday people with fascinating stories behind them. 

There is, however, a forgotten Missisispppi gravesite that rarely ever gets visited.

Elvis Presley’s gravesite is located in Tennessee, at Graceland. However, most Elvis fans…

This article first appeared on Our Mississippi Home.

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Activists call for arrest of Carolyn Donham who was allegedly in on the murder of Emmett Till

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www.wxxv25.com – WXXV Staff – 2022-07-01 17:15:02

National Activist John C. Barnett and other local activists traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina to hold a press conference demanding the arrest of Carolyn Bryant Donham.

An unserved warrant was found last week in a Mississippi courthouse charging Donham in the 1955 kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till.

The group of activists traveled to Raleigh and hosted the rally in front of the district attorney’s office…

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Emmett Till family’s quest for justice: Warrant discovery is latest step

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Arrest warrant discovery is latest step in Emmett Till family’s decades-long quest for justice

It’s been nearly 70 years since Emmett Till was lynched in the Mississippi Delta, but his family has not given up on justice. 

Last week, a search team that includes Till family members Deborah and Teri Watts discovered the original, unserved arrest warrant for the only living accomplice to Till’s in the basement of the Leflore County courthouse in Greenwood. 

Deborah Watts, Till’s cousin and founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, said uncovering the document is the result of the family’s perseverance and determination. 

“We never accepted (the) closing of this case by the authorities or gave up hope,” she said in a Thursday statement. “We have always pushed for full accountability of all those involved in Emmett’s murder who may still be alive.”

The uncovered warrant is for Carolyn Bryant Donham, listed as “Mrs. Roy Bryant,” and is dated Aug. 29, 1955, days after Till’s death. The document had been in the courthouse for 67 years.

She was formerly married to Roy Bryant, who with his half-brother, J.W. Milam, killed 14-year-old Till who was visiting family from Chicago. They kidnapped him after Donham wrongfully accused Till of grabbing her and making unwanted advances. 

Donham is now in her 80s and most recently lived in North Carolina. 

The Department of Justice reopened Till’s case several times in the past two decades, but no new charges were made. The two men tried for his murder in 1955 were acquitted by an all-white jury. 

For several years, family members, supporters and the foundation have called for justice for Till and for Donham to be held accountable. Finding the original warrant could make that happen, they say. 

The Till family sent certified copies of the warrant to local and federal law enforcement, according to the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation. They are asking the U.S. Department of Justice Division and the Mississippi Fourth District Attorney’s Office to consider the warrant new evidence, investigate and charge Donham as an accessory in Till’s death. 

The search team, which also includes foundation ambassador Melissa Earnest, family ambassador Khali Rasheed and filmmaker and justice advocate Keith Beauchamp, received access to the courthouse on June 21, according to the foundation.

The team went through boxes organized by decade, and Rasheed found a file folder containing the warrant, according to the foundation.The original warrant and file and a certified copy can be found at the Leflore County courthouse. 

Beauchamp was granted access in March for an initial search for the warrant, according to the foundation. A few months earlier, Earnest told Watts that the warrant may possibly be in Leflore County. 

Watts said the pursuit of justice is dedicated to and honors Till and other late family members: his mother, Mamie Till Mobley; cousin Simeon Wright, who was the last to see him alive; and great uncle Mose Wright, whose home Till stayed at before his death. 

Family members have been seeking justice since Till’s death, according to the foundation. His mother chose to have an open casket at his funeral to show the world what happened to Till, and she continued to fight for justice until her death in 2003. 

In March, Till’s family and supporters visited the Mississippi State Capitol and delivered a petition with over 300,000 signatures to the ’s office calling for Donham to be charged. 

Family members founded the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, whose goal is to preserve the memory and legacy of Till and his mother’s hope for justice. The group hopes to create a legacy of hope by bridging the past, present and future through programs, according to the foundation’s website. 

In the petition, the foundation links Till’s death to modern killings of Black people, such as George Floyd in Minnesota, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and Eric Garner in New York.

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

More questions than answers at 3-year mark of welfare scandal- Mississippi Today

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‘It doesn’t look good’: At 3-year mark, more questions than answers in Mississippi welfare fraud scandal

“It doesn’t look good.”

Former Gov. Phil Bryant’s own words about his role in the state’s welfare fraud scandal are a great understatement.

And now at the three-year mark since investigators began nibbling at the edges of what state Auditor Shad White has called the largest public fraud case in state history, things still don’t look good. But there remain as many questions as answers on how at least $77 million in federal welfare dollars was stolen or misspent. And by whom.

The questions in chief: Is the case being thoroughly investigated, top to bottom, and will all those responsible be held accountable? Have punches been pulled because of politics or celebrity?

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

Revelations about involvement of Bryant and former NFL star quarterback Brett Favre have fueled these questions. Text messages obtained by Mississippi Today have revealed that Bryant was at least briefed through texts about the flow of state money from welfare officials he oversaw to a private pharmaceutical venture Favre was backing. Bryant was set to accept stock in the company hours after he left office — until the auditor made arrests in the case.

The state auditor and district attorney charged six people in early 2020, and four have pleaded guilty to the state charges – some as serious as bribery and racketeering. The state recently filed a lawsuit to attempt to “claw back” $24 million in misspent money from 38 people or companies, including Favre and the pharmaceutical venture’s owner. But to date, neither Bryant nor Favre have faced criminal charges or, at least to the public’s knowledge, the same scrutiny others faced.

It’s unclear where any continuing federal or state investigations stand at the three-year mark. No further arrests have been made since February of 2020. Interim Southern District U.S. Attorney Darren J. LaMarca and the U.S. Department of Justice declined comment.

This has raised questions, in particular, about state Auditor White, who spearheaded the initial investigation and charges with a local DA — for eight months — without involving federal authorities despite the case involving millions of federal welfare dollars. White has explained that he made arrests to stop the flow of funds to the allegedly corrupt nonprofits and afterward turned all evidence over to federal authorities.

But questions about if and when White’s office alerted other authorities to Bryant’s text messages remain. The auditor’s office refused to turn the messages over to Mississippi Today after a public records request, and the outlet has a pending Ethics Commission records complaint against the office.

Did White and his investigators know Bryant was in talks with the company at the center of the embezzlement scandal when they made the arrests, which derailed Bryant’s business arrangement with the company?

Also, there are questions about a forensic audit ordered up by the state Department of Human Services and White’s office, whether the state put too many limitations on the firm conducting the probe.

Should auditor have informed feds he was investigating for months?

White’s close relationship with Bryant — who directly supervised his welfare director as taxpayer money flowed to people and programs the governor favored — has been questioned. Recently, three former state auditors said White should have recused himself or limited his involvement in the initial investigation to avoid perception of conflict of interest.

White ran Bryant’s 2015 reelection campaign, worked for Bryant in the lieutenant governor’s office and was initially appointed auditor by Bryant, who then helped White win election to the post.

White’s office gathered the messages between Bryant and Favre in early 2020, but some parties to the cases hadn’t seen them until almost two years later, sources told Mississippi Today, raising questions about when the auditor’s office alerted other authorities to their existence.

White, who has often declined comment citing a long-running state judge’s gag order on the case, on social media blasted such questioning in Mississippi Today articles, calling it “garbage reporting” and a liberal attack. He said he would no longer speak with Mississippi Today.

READ MORE: Former auditors question whether Shad White was too close to investigate Phil Bryant

“Guess what? I did hand it to another law enforcement agency,” White tweeted recently. “After our initial arrests, I gave the FBI access to everything we have over two years ago. They have even worked from my office on the case. Between all of us, this case will be fully investigated. Period. … The reporting contains a blatant lie. ‘Questions about if and when White’s office alerted other authorities to [Bryant’s] text messages remain.’ Questions do not ‘remain.’ The FBI has had access to everything we have for years. That answers the ‘questions.’”

But experts in major federal investigations and criminal forensic auditing said there are some unusual or questionable aspects of the case to date.

“What’s really unusual is for (the state) not to reach out to the feds in a matter like this,” said law professor and former Alabama U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance, referring to White’s office and a local DA bringing indictments and arrests without involving the FBI or U.S. attorney.

“Everybody likes to handle their own cases when they’ve found something, but in many ways the feds are able to bring in better resources,” Vance said. “… The federal government has better resources but can also move more quickly. It also typically has better statutory remedies — meaning people spend more time in prison if that matters to you in these types of cases.”

Vance said Mississippi’s welfare fraud case “implicates uniquely federal interests when you’ve got federal money involved.”

“The state auditor went to the DA, and the DA didn’t call (the feds) as a courtesy, either?” Vance said. “That’s a little unusual.”

Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens told Mississippi Today he did email a courtesy notice to the U.S. attorney’s office, but not until a day or two before the state secured indictments. This was after the state auditor had investigated for eight months. At the time, in early February 2020, then U.S. attorney Mike Hurst issued a release complaining, “We in the United States Attorney’s Office and the FBI only learned (the day of the arrests) from media reports about the indictments and arrests, at the same time the general public did.”

Hurst in the release said his office caught wind of the investigation and reached out to the auditor and DA and was given some information about the investigation the day before the arrests, but “… Neither the FBI nor the United States Attorney’s Office was contacted by the state Auditor or the Hinds County District Attorney about this investigation, although millions of federal dollars are alleged to have been stolen.”

James T. Wood, founder of Utah-based Venture Forensics, is a former longtime FBI forensic accountant and former head of the FBI’s Forensic Accountant Support team at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Wood said the state not involving federal authorities in the initial investigation and indictments is “an odd scenario.”

“I understand from reading about this that (White) said the feds take a long time to do anything,” Wood said. “Part of that is that they are thorough and when they bring an indictment they want to make sure their ducks are in a row … I do think it’s odd that they weren’t notified … The magnitude of the dollar amount here is not insignificant. It would be one thing if this were just $10,000 in TANF funds, the feds might not care.”

Vance said that in many states, federal and state authorities have good relationships and can hand off to each other to avoid perception of political conflicts of interest.

“But this is a different situation than that sort of usual reciprocal behavior,” Vance said, “because this implicates uniquely federal interests when you’ve got federal money involved.”

But both Vance and Wood said that just because the welfare scandal has dragged on for three years without federal authorities announcing action doesn’t mean the feds aren’t working on it.

“You won’t get any insight from them until there’s either an indictment or not,” Vance said.

Wood said: “I guess I might be surprised if there isn’t a federal investigation going on given the magnitude and the fact that it’s federal funds.”

But the question remains: Did the state’s decision to bring charges on its own stymie or delay federal intervention, or give others involved a chance to take cover?

Why was the forensic audit of welfare spending limited?

Other questions remaining about the case involve a forensic audit ordered up by DHS and the state auditor’s office after initial malfeasance was spotted.

The prominent national accounting firm Clifton Larson Allen was hired for up to $2.1 million to get to the bottom of where the state’s welfare money went. This report is what led the state’s to try to recoup some of the money from people and companies.

But the forensic audit firm was limited in what and whom it was able to examine in its probe. In its audit reports delivered in September of 2021, CLA noted that it was not given access to former DHS Director John Davis’ computer hard drive and it was initially limited in whose emails it could examine.

“CLA was unable to obtain a copy of John Davis’ MDHS hard drive, as it was in the possession of the (Office of State Auditor) investigative division. Additionally, the scope of work limited CLA’s review of emails to include only John Davis’ MDHS emails. If other electronic evidence had been made available to CLA, additional information not currently known to CLA could impact the findings communicated in this report.”

MDHS explained that it asked CLA to review John Davis’ work emails as a starting point, and said that the firm was given freedom to review anything else in the agency’s possession the auditors deemed relevant. MDHS deferred Mississippi Today’s questions about why the auditor’s office did not let CLA examine John Davis’ hard drive to the auditor’s office and the auditor’s office has refused to respond to Mississippi Today’s questions.

CLA also noted that it was not provided records from Mississippi Community Education Center, the nonprofit at the center of the fraud scandal, and that MCEC did not cooperate with its probe. It’s unclear how many of these documents the auditor possessed but did not turn over to CLA – such as MCEC’s contract with Brett Favre for promotional activities, which was not discussed in the forensic audit.  The firm also noted it was not allowed access to John Davis’ personal finances.

“To the extent that CLA was limited in their ability to review records, MDHS was disappointed that the issues could not be fully explored in the forensic audit,” MDHS Director Bob Anderson told Mississippi Today in a statement.

In an addendum in late April of this year, CLA said it was allowed “expanded email review” by MDHS, with the agency providing the firm emails from a few others, including two other MDHS employees. The addendum still did not explore Bryant’s or Favre’s involvement in welfare spending.

Wood, who reviewed CLA’s audit reports, said, “I would say that scope limitation is odd.”

“I think that’s a fair question,” Wood said. “… The fact that (CLA) noted it in their report is what we call a scope limitation. It’s odd that they were not allowed access to the entire hard drive … It’s odd because the (Office of State Auditor) had it, so it wasn’t a situation where it was destroyed or the hard drive failed or something. It sounds like they have it, and I’m puzzled why they wouldn’t let them look at it.”

Wood said it also appears unusual that CLA was thwarted in trying to get nonprofit MCEC’s records.

“Were they not allowed to go up the ladder to the governor?” Wood said. “Sounds like from what you guys have uncovered, and from what’s cited in the OSA’s (earlier audit) report — it mentions Favre Enterprises — it strikes me as odd there’s no mention in CLA’s report of any of that. They did mention that they’ve reviewed the OSA’s report, and maybe they didn’t want to duplicate things.”

“There may be a reason why, but I’m surprised that there’s nothing discussed in their report about that,” Wood said. “OSA’s report mentioned a number of entertainers and things that they found were questionable … Usually a forensic audit is going to look at as much as possible. I’m not criticizing CLA’s work — It looks like they did it the right way as far as I can see.

“… It’s an interesting situation where OSA brought those actions, and then the state hires an independent audit firm, but then limits the scope of that audit,” Wood said.

THE BACKCHANNEL: Full coverage of Mississippi’s welfare scandal

The forensic audit helped the state ’s office craft its civil lawsuit trying to recoup misspent money intended to help poor people. While the lawsuit highlights the taxpayer dollars going to the private pharmaceutical venture, it does not scrutinize the role of former Gov. Bryant. Besides Favre, the lawsuit targets former football stars Marcus Dupree and Paul Lacoste, retired WWE wrestler Ted “The Million Dollar Man” DiBiase Sr. and his two sons, among others.

None of the audit reports or MDHS’s lawsuit contain relevant details reported in Mississippi Today’s investigative series, “The Backchannel,” such as Brett Favre’s communication with Bryant about pharmaceutical company Prevacus; a calendar entry in which John Davis recorded that the governor and Favre requested he meet with Prevacus; the athlete’s communication with Nancy New, John Davis and the governor about funding the volleyball facility; Nancy New’s relationship with the governor’s great nephew; or Bryant’s casual requests to John Davis to fund his favored vendors.

The lawsuit also fails to target numerous others involved in alleged misspending of welfare dollars. Notably, two entities that received welfare money through activities referenced in criminal proceedings — the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation and tech company Lobaki Inc. were not named in the suit.

Nonprofit MCEC’s director Nancy New and assistant director Zach New admitted to defrauding the government of $865,000 for a Lobaki virtual reality center and program. Zach New admitted to fraud by transferring $4 million in welfare money for the construction of a volleyball stadium at USM, disguised as a lease.

State officials have not said whether the state will try to recoup all misspent money from these entities or others that received payments auditors have questioned.

The also recently pleaded guilty in a separate federal case involving public funding they bilked for their private schools. But in the state case, the News received a favorable plea deal that keeps them out of the state penitentiary, allowing them to avoid any more prison time for charges related to the welfare scheme, as long as they cooperate with the ongoing investigation. Such a deal suggest they may have valuable information prosecutors could use to pursue someone higher up the chain.

Bryant in a lengthy sit-down interview with Mississippi Today appeared to at least understand why people have more questions about the case.

“Now I can clearly see why you’re following those trails,” Bryant said. “And it doesn’t look good. Should I have caught it? Absolutely. I should’ve caught it. Was I extremely busy as governor? I can’t even describe to you what it is like on a daily basis as governor. This was not on the top of my list. This was not something that I was looking at every day. I’d get a text and it just kind of glance through it. I’d say, ‘Good,’ and I would go on and try to work on something really important for state government.”

Reporter Anna Wolfe contributed to this report.

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

Delta farm owners underpay, push out Black workers

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Exploited: White Delta farm owners are underpaying and pushing out Black workers

INDIANOLA – The new crop of workers arrived with clipped accents and small khaki shorts. 

Richard Strong remembers the young men – farmers back home – had never seen a massive 28,000-pound tractor until traveling some 8,000 miles to Mississippi. 

As kids, Richard and his brother, Gregory, earned calloused palms chopping cotton in the swelter of southern summers. As adults, they spent 24 years filling acres with cotton, soybeans and corn on Pitts Farms – just like their daddy had. 

“Farming is actually in our DNA,” said Richard Strong, now 51. “I could close my eyes and drive a tractor.” 

But the brothers haven’t been on a tractor or in the fields in over two years. They say they unknowingly trained themselves out of jobs when the Pitts family hired South Africans through a visa program.  

The Pitts paid their foreign workforce nearly $12 an hour while their local workers – usually Black men – made just $7.25 to $9.50 per hour, according to a Department of Labor audit that spanned 2020 and 2021. The audit also found four local workers lost out on shifts when the temporary workers arrived. 

But the Strongs and other Black workers say the pay gap existed from the first day the South Africans started at the family-owned farm several years before. Records show the Pitts started seeking foreign workers as early as 2014. Locals got an occasional pay bump on the weekends, but mostly took home federal minimum wage as the farm started giving them fewer shifts, according to years of paystubs obtained by Mississippi Today.

The Strongs and six others – who worked for the Pitts for more than 100 combined years – say they were pushed out of their jobs completely.

Richard and Gregory Strong of Indianola. Both brothers once worked for Pitts Farms, where they say they witnessed white South Africans being hired, and paid more, to do the very work the and other Black workers were doing.

“I just want to know how you do this with a clear conscience,” said Willie Mae Ward, daughter of a former Pitts worker. “I see it as slave driving.”

Pitts Farms is not the only Delta farm that has misused the program. A Mississippi Today investigation found at least five farms in the Delta paid their local workforce less money than workers who came to the state on foreign farm work permits – called H-2A visas – over the past few years.

All but one of those farms worked with an agency that specializes in recruiting South Africans, who are usually young, white and speak English. They’re eager for the American dollar, which holds 15 times the value of the South African rand. 

Across the Delta, farm owners say they’re responding to a generational shift from farming and a shortage of willing labor. Their local workforce is aging and foreign workers jump at the chance to come work in Mississippi.

But poor recruitment efforts among local workers, evidence of low wages, and a labor culture rooted in racism mean men like the Strongs wonder if there’s a future for them in the fields, or whether decades of family history end here. 

The brothers and their coworkers are named in a discrimination against Pitts Farms. It was filed last year by lawyers with the . The lawsuit alleges men, ranging in age from 42 to 71, were replaced by a younger and whiter workforce, in part by exploiting the visa program to import foreign laborers.

READ MORE: Here’s how we reported this story

Black workers have been sounding alarms across the Delta for the last year. 

This April, the lawyers handling the lawsuit against Pitts Farms filed another – this time, on behalf of five Black catfish farm workers at Harris Russell Farms in Sunflower. The workers made up to $3.38 less an hour than their South African counterparts, according to the lawsuit. 

The H-2A program is supposed to fill gaps for farmers when they cannot find enough local workers for seasonal positions. The program mandates a premium hourly wage, produced by a formula. This year in Mississippi, that wage rose to $12.45 per hour. Labor regulations mandate farms hiring H-2A workers must offer jobs to prior local workers at that adjusted rate and cannot pay current workers below it. 

Yet, another Black worker from a different Delta farm settled outside of court this year because his employer paid white South Africans more than him per hour. A recent Department of Labor investigation found two other catfish farmers – one in Indianola and the other in Tunica – paying local workers less money than those brought in through the foreign visa program, according to records obtained by Mississippi Today.  

“There has been a wholesale failure to adequately recruit U.S. farmworkers for H-2A jobs, particularly in the Mississippi Delta,” said Ty Pinkins, one of the Mississippi Center for Justice attorneys. “There are plenty of Delta residents with extensive experience who would eagerly accept a farm labor job that paid between $11 and $13 per hour.”

A South African worker heads to the fields in Sharkey County, Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021.

The Mississippi Delta is one of the country’s poorest regions with unemployment rates ranging from 4% to 12% across its 18 counties. 

The Pitts lawsuit was filed in September 2021 and is still moving forward in court. The farm, which has been family owned and run out of Indianola since at least 1987, declined to respond to Mississippi Today’s questions through their lawyer, but did offer a statement.

“We strongly disagree with the plaintiffs’ claims and we look forward to presenting the full set of facts in the course of the litigation and having this matter decided according to the law,” attorney Tim Threadgill said via email. 

The other farms Mississippi Today found underpaying local workers either declined to comment or never responded to a reporter.

So far this season, four of the five farms – including Pitts – have applied for foreign workers. The labor department has approved them all.

Nationwide, use of the H-2A program is exploding. 

It has more than doubled in size over the past decade, breaking a record last year when the U.S. issued nearly 258,000 of the temporary farm work visas.

In Mississippi, 368 farms asked for H2-A workers for the 2020-21 season, according to application data analyzed by Mississippi Today. Only 14 were denied. 

For the roughly 34,000 farms across Mississippi, about 400 cases have been opened by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division in the past 15 years. Among that fraction, a Mississippi Today analysis found 81% of the cases ended with farms found breaking labor regulations. That’s about 10% higher than the national rate.

Critics say the fines for underpaying U.S. workers – $1,898 per offense – or failing to call back local workers for jobs are barely a deterrent. When farmers do get caught breaking wage rules, investigation records show they feign ignorance.

“For some of these employers, it’s like speeding down the highway when there’s not a lot of out,” said Jim Knoepp, a lawyer and visa program expert with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It’s a good gamble they’ll never get caught.” 

Richard Strong would work for another farm if he could. Farmers talk, he said. As far as he can tell, he and his brother are blacklisted. 

Strong remembers a Pitts Farms manager telling him he was taking the farm into the “new millennium.” 

“A lot of stuff was going to change,” Strong recalled. “And there was a lot of people who wasn’t going to be a part of the farm.”

That meant men like Wesley Reed, 71, and Andrew Johnson, 67. Men who were born into the Jim Crow South and came of age during the earliest years of desegregation. Men who have only ever farmed. 

They may not be as spry as they were 40 years ago, but they know their way around a row-crop tractor. Both managed to find other jobs with farmers who don’t use South Africans.

“At the time I started, it was about the only job I could get because I have no education,” Johnson said as he refueled a John Deere tractor. 

Andrew Johnson, farmer in Indianola, plowing a field in preparation for soy bean planting.

He spent two decades working for the Pitts. He can’t read, but taught himself how to set up a tractor’s satellite settings. 

Johnson and Reed cannot afford to retire. They’ve never earned enough to save much.

One of their attorneys, Gregory Schell, points to payroll records Pitts Farms produced during the court case’s discovery: individual H-2A workers earned over $41,000 working for Pitts Farms in 2019. 

Reed, Schell said, earned $11,000 that year, as the Pitts stopped giving him as many shifts.

That was his last year with the farm. Johnson’s, too. Both had planned to come back in 2020. 

Reed – who had already asked for, and been denied, a raise – says he was told that year they weren’t sure they’d need him anymore. The South Africans were coming, Reed recalled.

Johnson waited for a phone call to return to work that never came.

Before Richard Strong found a pay stub that confirmed the South Africans were making higher wages, Reed had his suspicions.

A month after the lawsuit was filed, Reed sat in his shotgun living room, still in his dirtied denim overalls from a day plowing the fields.

“Did you know, when the South Africans started, they’d be paid more? How did you know?” Reed’s daughter, Willie Mae, asked. 

He smirked. 

“Skin color,” he said.

Wesley Reed and his daughter, Willie Mae Ward, sit in the family living room. Credit: Sara DiNatale/Mississippi Today

As attorneys with the Mississippi Center for Justice were piecing together the Pitts Farms lawsuit in early 2021, investigators from the Department of Labor were beginning an audit. 

It’s unclear what prompted DOL to look into Pitts Farms and whether it was related to the lawsuit. The department’s Wage and Hour Division, which handles H-2A program violations, has a hotline – 1-866-4-USWAGE – anyone can call to anonymously report mistreatment to help steer investigators. 

The audit of the farm’s payroll began in February 2021. The entire investigation was done remotely. The agency says that was because of

Mississippi Today obtained a copy of the Pitts Farms audit through a public records request. 

On June 4, 2021, investigators had a conference call with Pitts Farms to explain that the Indianola business was facing 18 labor violations, owed local workers $76,000 in missing wages, and was being fined $25,000. 

Investigators wrote in their report Lisa Tharp, the office manager, said she and Pitts Farms were “not aware that local U.S. corresponding workers needed to be paid the same as H-2A workers.” 

But every year from 2014 to 2019 the Pitts applied for H-2A workers the farm’s owner, Will Pitts, signed agreements on its applications confirming that job opportunities for its local workers had “no less the same benefits, wages, and working conditions” as the incoming H-2A workers.

Despite Pitts Farms’ admission, the audit only looked at two seasons of the farm’s payroll: 2020 and 2021.

The two catfish farm owners in the Delta who were told to pay a combined $102,000 in back wages to their local workers in 2020 had a similar response when confronted about underpaying workers, according to investigation reports. The catfish cases also examined two years of payroll.

In a statement, the labor department said each of its investigations is driven by “the availability of evidence, including records and testimony.” Generally, the agency said, it applies a two-year investigation period as its standard scope. 

“Had they gone back even one more year, they would have picked up on every one of our clients being underpaid,” said Schell, one of the men’s attorneys. 

Of the eight men included in the Pitts Farms case, only one got a portion of the $76,000 in wages the investigators found missing from workers’ paychecks, according to Schell.

Before asking for foreign workers, Pitts – like all H-2A farms – was required to offer jobs to the locals who had worked at the farm before, usually by mail. Investigators found Pitts hadn’t done that, either. 

The farm argued that the local workers who lived on the farm’s property were drawing unemployment and did not want to work out of fear of COVID-19 exposure. Yet, as the investigators pointed out, the violations occurred before the pandemic began. 

Schell called the audit a perfunctory investigation.

He estimates the men in the lawsuit are owed more than $100,000 in unpaid wages. There is a larger amount being sought in addition that would cover lost hours. Schell said his team is still calculating that figure.

“I’m doing the math and the Pitts came out way ahead,” he said. 

When COVID-19’s omicron variant closed the U.S. borders to South Africans, Mississippi farm owners panicked. 

They had become so reliant on South African workers that the ability to harvest crops was dependent upon their arrival. In response, Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation President Mike McCormick wrote a letter to the state’s members of Congress, begging that South African farm workers be exempt from any potential travel bans.

The State Department made provisions within days so that the farm workers could travel without issue.

The visa program is popular because it brings in workers for eight to 10 months and sends them home during the winter season, McCormick told Mississippi Today

“It fits the farm industry,” he said. “No work for four months? That’s a hard thing to justify (to local workers). Maybe back in the old days, but as expensive as things are today, everybody needs to collect a paycheck every week.” 

Farmers say as their longtime workers reach retirement, there isn’t a young workforce eager – or with the proper skills – to take their places, which has added to the popularity of the H-2A program. 

“Coming generations of workers in our state, most of them did not grow up on a farm,” said Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Andy Gipson. “They don’t really know the current status of the type of work that’s performed or the high-tech technology it takes even to use a tractor today.” 

More than 90% of H-2A workers come from Mexico. South Africans make up about 3% of the program, according to DOL data.

Ricky Williamson, a rice and soybean farmer in Tutwiler, has been using Mexican H-2A workers for the past decade. Farmers have to reimburse travel expenses. Williamson said he uses workers from Mexico to keep those costs down. 

“I have no local labor because they don’t apply for jobs,” Williamson said. “I run ads in the paper and they don’t respond. I would like to have some, but I just think they’re not interested.”

A farm sprinkler on untilled land in Sunflower County, Wednesday, October 13, 2021.

Growers are required to advertise the jobs to U.S. workers before seeking H-2A employees. They often list farming experience requirements along with the ability to read and write or the completion of high school or high school equivalency.

Only six Delta counties have full-time WIN Job Centers, which host the job postings on their website. Swaths of the Delta struggle with reliable internet access. That leaves some agriculture experts unimpressed with the efforts farmers are taking to reach or train workers in their own zip codes.

Farm workers told Mississippi Today that finding a job is about who you know.

“White farmers say they tried to hire labor locally and couldn’t find it when they’re in a region with the highest unemployment rate in the country?” posed Lloyd Wright, the former director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

“That takes a big imagination.” 

Wright has researched the Delta. He’s spent time in South Africa, too, as an expert in rural farming. 

Most of his work at the USDA involved systemic racism that limited USDA funds going to Black-owned farms, making it all the more challenging for them to survive. 

White-owned Mississippi farms have an extensive post- history of finding ways to both exploit, and minimize their reliance on, Black workers – from tenant farming and sharecropping to using European prisoners of war in the fields during World War II. A century ago, there were about 1 million Black farm owners. The USDA says of the country’s 3.4 million farmers today, only about 45,000 are Black

The mostly Black population of the Delta largely struggles in poverty. There are few industries to provide jobs other than agriculture. Small towns in the region can have upwards of 50% unemployment rates, according to a 2016 Alcorn State University study. 

Federal dollars regularly flow into the region – but to farm owners through the U.S. Department of Agriculture grants. Public records show Pitts Farms received nearly $2 million in USDA grants since 2018. 

“These towns are crumbling in the Delta,” Wright said. Since farmers accept this money readily, they need to “get local folks educated so they can provide for their communities. The bodies are available.”

Cindy Ayers Elliott is an investment-banker-turned-farm-owner based in Jackson. Like Wright, she worries the growing popularity of the H-2A program is sending needed money out of the Delta, as H-2A workers primarily save up to bring their earnings back home.  

If farm owners are struggling to attract workers, Elliot said, they need to ask themselves why. One of the answers? The children of farmworkers grew up watching their parents struggle on minimum wage. 

“Right now, systemic racism is in the farm culture in Mississippi,” she said. 

Farm owners don’t have the time to hunt down South African workers themselves – so they outsource the task. Most use an agency to handle the H-2A process from paperwork to finding a pool of applicants for a fee. 

Ty Pinkins with niece Lyell Knight in Delta City. Pinkins is an army veteran, author, attorney and son of a Delta farm worker.

Of the 354 Mississippi farms that were approved for H-2A workers last year, about half used the Mississippi-based agency C.O.C Placement Service. That same agency also handled finding workers for four of the farms Mississippi Today found underpaying its local workers. 

The company declined to speak to Mississippi Today.

Mississippi Today contacted two dozen farmers that used the agency. Most declined to speak with a reporter out of fear it would bring attention to their farm and prompt a labor department investigation.

“These practices by third-party organizations, like C.O.C Placement, simply show that there has previously been – and likely still is – widespread non-compliance by farm owners to pay local U.S. workers the (wages) required,” said Pinkins, one of the attorneys.

Mississippi farmers say they like South Africans because they’re dedicated. South Africans say they like Mississippi farmers because they want to get paid American wages. 

“When they come here, they want to go six days a week,” said Allen Flowers, who runs a mom-and-pop soybean farm in Greenwood. “They’re polite and all about being on time.” 

A 15-hour workday isn’t unusual, H-2A workers said. Nor is seeing tractors in the fields after dark when visibility is low – a risk local workers told Mississippi Today they wouldn’t feel safe taking. 

The South African workers are usually – if not always – white. The apartheid regime fell three decades ago, but the country’s 80% Black population’s historic limited access to wealth and landownership hasn’t made it easy for them to join the H-2A program. 

Neil Diamond, the president of the South African Chamber of Commerce U.S.A., says his commission is working to bring more Black South Africans into the program but their lack of participation is a definite shortfall. 

Van Der Walt, of South Africa, poses for a selfie during his time working on a Mississippi farm.

The South Africans who do make it to America get a respite from their country’s own problems, as it continues to grapple with a high rate of violent .

“Everything is about the money,” said Dwayne Van Der Walt, a former H-2A worker from South Africa. “No man would leave behind his wife and children if it wasn’t for the good salary there, so you can buy burglary-proof stuff and better fences to keep homes safer.” 

Van Der Walt, 31, spent seven years working months at a time on U.S. farms, including in Clarksdale and Greenwood. 

In America, he was able to save up about $20,000. It went far in South Africa, where he’s now a trucker. He got his commercial license while working in America. The program helped set him up to support his 3-year-old child as a single parent. 

H-2A workers told Mississippi Today that performing a similar type of farm work in South Africa would pay just a few hundred dollars a month. 

The only raise Black Pitts Farms workers ever recalled getting was when the federal minimum wage changed.

That means as recently as 1989, these workers were making just $3.35 an hour. That’s about a $1 raise each decade to hit $7.25.

In December, civil rights group the Leadership Conference Education Fund wrote a letter to Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh stating the department’s efforts to protect Black southern workers was “falling short.” They were referring to the Pitts Farms lawsuit.

“Unfortunately, in all too many instances, importation of these foreign workers has been to the extreme detriment of rural U.S. employees, many of whom are people of color,” the letter said. 

The labor department responded by touting their Pitts Farms investigation – the one Mississippi Today found only captured a two-year payroll audit. 

Walsh’s office has since announced plans to hold a roundtable discussion in Indianola.

“Equity is a critical issue for the department, and the Wage and Hour Division is firmly committed to working with our stakeholders on the ground to protect the most vulnerable workers,” a DOL spokesperson said in a statement.

On June 8, the agents who investigate farm wages and other violations held a seminar in the Delta to explain regulations and the audit process – like the one the Pitts went through – to farm owners.

Diamond, the director of the South African commerce office, says any farm or agency found breaking the rules is kicked out of their trade group. 

“There are bad actors out there,” he said. “We don’t have control over everyone, it’s a very large program, but we encourage farmers and workers to be fully compliant with the regulations.” 

These days, Richard Strong makes money cutting hair. His brother takes on odd mechanic jobs. 

One of the other men in the Pitts lawsuit, a truck driver in his 40s, now drives for Dollar General rather than transporting crops. It’s the first time in his adult life he’s had health insurance. 

Richard misses the tractor’s steady thrum. Sometimes, he closes his eyes and he’s back. He can see the controls in his head. 

He has a 15-year-old son, Amaureon, who wants to farm. The teen is drawn to the powerful machinery, the massive tractors, the combines – just like his dad. 

He’s in a farming program at school where he works hands-on with equipment. He takes pride in watching dirt and seeds become corn through his hard work.

“Farming is the one thing I’ve always loved,” he said.

He knows what his father has gone through. He knows it’s unfair. But he still wants to farm.

He watched a tractor rake through a field across the street from his home on a recent morning. He thought about owning acres of land. Maybe one day he could be his own boss. 

That way, he wouldn’t be at the whims of someone else.

Note: Mississippi Today reporter Alex Rozier contributed to this report.

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

Defendant: Bryant should be sued over misspent welfare funds

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Former Gov. Phil Bryant should be sued over misspent welfare funds, civil defendant argues to court

A civil defendant in Mississippi’s massive welfare misspending scandal is arguing that if he’s being sued, so should former Gov. Phil Bryant.

That is just one explosive nugget included in a Friday court filing from Austin Smith, nephew to the now disgraced former welfare director John Davis and a former contractor of Nancy New’s nonprofit. The state is suing Smith for nearly half a million dollars.

Smith, in the filing, also alleges:

  • That he was directed by members of Bryant’s inner circle to expend federal grant funds on an expensive advertising contract with the company that owns Supertalk Radio, the conservative network that spans the entire state and touts Republican leaders.
  • That Nancy New, who has pleaded guilty to misspending millions in federal grant money including for celebrity rehab stints, told Smith she also paid for rehab for the son of Supertalk CEO Kim Dillon. Kim Dillon denied this allegation on Tuesday.
  • That Smith was wrongfully accused of calling his uncle and welfare agency director John Davis gay — a falsehood, Smith says, that isolated him from his family.
  • That the state of Mississippi has protected other entities that were involved in misspending of welfare funds, including the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation and members of the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning, which allowed for the use of $5 million in federal public assistance funds to build a new volleyball stadium.

Bryant consulted concussion drug company Prevacus, one of the civil defendants that received stolen welfare funds, and the former governor was even poised to accept stock in the company after he left office — a deal only made public after Mississippi Today obtained text messages between Bryant and former NFL legend Brett Favre. Smith’s recent filing uses Mississippi Today’s reporting to criticize the state for failing to name Bryant as a defendant, considering what the organization found about the former governor’s role in the scandal.

FULL COVERAGE: Mississippi Today’s “The Backchannel” investigation

Through a written statement Tuesday, Bryant rejected the notion that he should be held civilly responsible in the scheme.

Independent forensic auditors found that at least $77 million in federal welfare funds were misspent or stolen from Mississippi Department of Human Services during Bryant’s last four years in office. The agency filed a lawsuit in May seeking about $24 million from 38 individuals or organizations, but Bryant — who had the sole, statutory responsibility to oversee the spending of the state’s welfare agency — was not among the defendants.

The latest filing aims to demonstrate that Bryant had a close relationship with Davis and New and is just as responsible for the scheme. Without a bid or application process, Mississippi Department of Human Services, a department under the governor’s office, selected New’s nonprofit to receive tens of millions of welfare dollars, which they spent with little oversight.

“The most plausible reason for this massive transfer to New and her companies is the friendship between Bryant and New. There was no ‘full and open competition’ for this massive federal funding as required,” the filing reads.

New pleaded guilty to bribery, fraud and racketeering while Davis is still pleading not guilty to several similar charges. Much of the case deals with the fact that funds from a federal program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, which is supposed to provide assistance to needy families, were used in ways that didn’t help the poor.

“Governor Bryant’s personal involvement in these misexpenditures would have communicated to Governor Bryant’s immediate subordinate, John Davis, and to Governor Bryant’s long-time, personal friend, Nancy New, that Bryant did not require TANF funds to be used exclusively for the benefit of needy families, but that the governor ratified and approved use of TANF funds for non-TANF purposes,” the filing reads. “Thus, to the extent that Governor Bryant’s immediate subordinate, John Davis, and close personal friend, Nancy New, were expending TANF funds for non-TANF purposes without ‘full and open competition,’ Governor Bryant is jointly responsible.”

Denton Gibbes, a spokesperson for Bryant, defended the former governor in a fiery retort Tuesday.

“The ‘Answer’ filed by Austin Smith’s attorney is truly a work of fiction and an attempt to draw attention away from his client,” Gibbes wrote in an email. “Fortunately, the justice system requires more than hearsay, political jabs, and baseless conclusions. The only thing that doesn’t appear to be a complete fabrication or distortion of the truth is the fact that Governor Bryant was the whistle blower who turned the evidence over to the state auditor, the state watchdog over state agencies that traditionally investigates allegations of fraud and misspending.”

In response, Jim Waide, the Tupelo attorney representing Smith, noted that some lawyers take the approach that if you “deny something strongly enough, people will believe it.”

“I don’t see how he’s going to deny what he said in his own text messages,” Waide said.

Smith alleges in his filing that Bryant had promised Davis a position in the consulting firm Bryant established after he left office.

Instead, Davis explained to his family members, Bryant told him he was going to “fucking jail,” the states, because Davis had allowed an agency contractor, retired professional wrestler Brett DiBiase, to use Davis’ own P.O. Box to receive payment of $48,000 from the agency.

This comparatively small suspected instance of fraud — not information related to the Nancy New nonprofit, the volleyball stadium or Prevacus, projects of which Bryant was aware — is the tip Bryant took to State Auditor Shad White in 2019.

“Governor Bryant apparently believed this check was a kickback,” the filing reads.

Brett DiBiase entered a guilty plea regarding making false statements in order to defraud the government. DiBiase pleaded guilty before Judge Tomie Green in Circuit Court Thursday morning in Jackson.

But in reality, the filing alleges, Brett DiBiase used his boss’ address to retrieve payment because he was in the middle of a divorce and wanted to hide the income from his wife. In a 2019 polygraph interview, in which state auditor’s investigators tried to discern whether Davis had received a kickback, Brett DiBiase explained that he used the money to lavish his girlfriend, not on Davis.

Davis helped direct over $5 million in welfare funds to organizations owned by the DiBiases. The state is also suing the DiBiases for repayment. If Davis received something of monetary value from the DiBiases in exchange for contracts, which would be a clear , officials have yet to describe what it was.

The recent filing touches on another wrinkle in the case that hasn’t become public thus far: Davis’ sexuality. Smith, in the filing, alleges that Brett DiBiase told Davis that Smith told DiBiase that Davis is gay. Smith said both Davis and his own parents became hostile towards Smith as a result.

Smith denies telling Brett DiBiase that Davis is gay, but much speculation has swirled around this case because of the flagrant favoritism the welfare director showed to Brett DiBiase and his brother Ted “Teddy” DiBiase Jr. and the closeness of their relationships.

Former director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services John Davis (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Davis and Teddy DiBiase swapped Christian devotionals, traveled out of state and exercised at the gym together, Mississippi Today first reported in its investigative series, “The Backchannel.” Davis frequently texted the older brother, “I love you.” The welfare director flew across the country to visit Brett DiBiase while he was in drug rehab, discussed his treatment options with a specialist and called him the “son I never had.” Davis directed New to use nonprofit funds to pay for Brett DiBiase’s rebab stint, text messages obtained by Mississippi Today show, resulting in criminal charges against New and Davis. When not together, Davis and Brett DiBiase shared long, late-night phone calls, phone records show.

Ties between the DiBiases and the welfare department are central to both criminal and civil cases against several defendants. Brett and Teddy are the sons of famous retired WWE wrestler Ted DiBiase, known as “The Million Dollar Man.” Smith’s filing alleges that Davis said Bryant was in on the welfare program’s partnership with the wrestlers — something the former governor has publicly denied.

“John Davis told Austin Smith that Governor Bryant wanted money received from a federal program called a ‘faith-based initiative,’ to be administered by the Heart of David Ministries, Inc., run by Ted DiBiase, Sr., ‘The Million Dollar Man,’” the filing reads. “According to what John Davis told Austin Smith, Governor Bryant claimed that Heart of David Ministries, Inc., and Ted DiBiase, Sr., would bring movies to the State of Mississippi.”

Former Gov. Phil Bryant and Ted DiBiase Jr. in 2015.

“Assuming that the ‘faith-based initiative’ actually means TANF funds,” the filing continues, “Governor Bryant could not have actually believed that Heart of David Ministries, Inc., operated by the DiBiases (a professional wrestling family), had a ‘special skill’ to expend welfare money for the benefit of needy families. Ted DiBiase, Sr., ‘The Million Dollar Man,’ was a champion in professional wrestling, a pseudosport, in which the champions are determined by fixed matches. According to a post about him on Wikipedia, ‘The Million Dollar Man’ repeatedly bragged that he was paying bribes for his championship belts.”

Michael Dawkins, the attorney for Ted DiBiase Sr. and Heart of David, said his client “acted in good faith reliance on the direction that was given to them by the state” and that the state monitored their work.

Smith’s filing also sheds new light on the state government’s relationship with conservative talk radio network SuperTalk.

In addition to working as a contractor for the Families First for Mississippi program, in which he was hired to develop a curriculum for an educational coding program, Smith also worked for the Mississippi Community College Board as a program manager for the state’s $10.6 million federal Preschool Development Grant (PDGB5). Smith alleges that a high level policy advisor in Bryant’s office, Laurie Smith, no relation to Austin Smith, called all the shots for how the grant would be spent.

“During his time with the Community College Board, Austin Smith refused to ‘sign off’ on only one expenditure,” the filing reads. “(Mississippi Community College Board President) Dr. (Andrea) Mayfield, in the presence of Dr. Laurie Smith, directed Austin Smith to sign an authorization for payment for advertising to TeleSouth Communications, a large media company which operates the well-known radio show ‘SuperTalk.’ Austin Smith declined to sign for this advertising because the time for making the expenditure under the terms of the grant had expired.”

SuperTalk heavily promoted the Families First for Mississippi program — through which most of the welfare funds were allegedly misspent or stolen. The parent company, TeleSouth Communications, received more than $630,000 from the two nonprofits running the welfare program, according to the state auditor.

“After the PDGB5 Grant expired, Austin Smith was the only grant employee whose  employment was terminated. Among the PDGB5 Grant employees retained were Austin Smith’s secretary, the niece of SuperTalk’s prominent host, Paul Gallo,” Austin Smith’s filing reads.

Davis had close communication with Supertalk CEO Kim Dillon and the two would discuss the progress of her son Logan Dillon, who worked as a lobbyist for the welfare department, Mississippi Today first reported in April.

“I talked with Logan last night and told him I had dinner with you. I didn’t go into what all we talked about but did let him know. I appreciate everything you have done for him!” Kim Dillon texted Davis in 2019.

Austin Smith’s filing could provide context for their communication: “Nancy New informed Austin Smith that she was paying for treatment for Logan Dillon, the son of Kim Dillon, the chief executive officer of TeleSouth Communications,” the filing alleges. “Logan Dillon is also a former legislative liaison for Governor Bryant. The fact that such welfare department funds were likely used for the treatment of Logan Dillon is corroborated by Logan Dillon’s former wife, an acquaintance of Austin Smith, who informed Austin Smith that her ex-husband, Logan Dillon, in fact, was receiving treatment paid for by Nancy New’s nonprofit.”

“Such a misuse of money intended for TANF beneficiaries is especially egregious since State law establishes onerous requirements for needy families to receive benefits,” the filing reads.

Kim Dillon denied the allegation, saying to Mississippi Today in a text message Tuesday, “Any medical treatment received by my son is subject to HIPAA laws and regulations. Any allegation that Nancy New or one of her related organizations paid for any medical treatment for my son is categorically false.”

Waide, Smith’s attorney, responded that HIPAA laws prevent providers from sharing medical records, but does not apply to the source of payment for medical treatment. “If they want to check out the sources to show they didn’t pay for it, then that’s the way to go about it to clear it up,” Waide said.

Smith’s filing also criticizes the state for failing to include as defendants the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation, which received $5 million in welfare funds to build a new volleyball stadium at the school, and Lobaki Foundation, which received nearly $800,000 to run a virtual reality program forensic auditors determined did not serve the needy.

Nancy New admitted to defrauding the government related to her nonprofit’s payments of $365,000 to Lobaki and her son and the nonprofit’s assistant director, Zach New, pleaded guilty to defrauding the government by paying the USM athletic foundation $4 million, which was disguised as a lease.

In addition to Smith’s filing, three other answers to MDHS’s complaint have been filed on behalf of defendants Amy Harris, Adam Such and his company SBGI LLC, and Ted DiBiase Sr. and his ministry Heart of David. Each of them denies the allegations.

Austin Smith’s answer to the civil lawsuit ultimately argues that the state has denied him equal protection of the law since the state did not also name Bryant and others as defendants.

“Arbitrarily naming Austin Smith, who has no assets with which to pay a judgment, while not suing politically-influential entities, such as former Governor Phil Bryant,” the answer reads, “… represents arbitrary denial of equal protection of laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

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

Welfare scandal: New asked for help before arrests

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‘Whipping child’: Nancy New asked highest officials for help before arrests in welfare scandal

In the days and weeks leading up to their arrests in early 2020, Nancy New and her son Zach New sought help from Mississippi’s highest officials to stop what they described as their persecution.

Private text messages obtained by Mississippi Today show the reacting with a combination of hubris, a sense of betrayal and even confusion over their plight. 

The News had been in charge of spending tens of millions of federal welfare dollars in Mississippi, but the state didn’t hire their nonprofit to provide tangible resources to the poor. Instead, it was to run a private referral center, while the state would use the nonprofit as its piggy bank for projects it couldn’t find funding for elsewhere. 

In many cases, these programs occurred out in the open. The welfare agency’s partnership with a Christian ministry run by WWE wrestlers was written into plans shared with the federal government. A $5 million lease agreement that paid for construction of a new volleyball stadium under the guise that people in poverty would attend courses at the facility was included in board meeting minutes and approved by the Institutes of Higher Learning and the ’s office. And Nancy New’s financing of a private pharmaceutical firm was explained in text messages that retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre sent to the state’s highest official, then-Gov. Phil Bryant.

That could help explain why the News seemed surprised to find themselves the subject of a probe that officials eventually called the largest public embezzlement bust in state history. In Nancy New’s many roles, she was often carrying out the vision of Gov. Bryant and his wife, Deborah Bryant. 

In her panic to shut down the investigation, Nancy New secured a meeting with then-U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst, according to the text messages and a source with knowledge of the meeting. She seemed to hope that the federal prosecutor could provide her information about the probe. 

“It has passed [sic] time to turn the other cheek,” Nancy New wrote to her two sons the evening of Jan. 25, 2020. “First, though, we have [to] make it through this and get this stopped, get cleared of their harassment, etc. then we will go after them all. It will obviously take a lot of money and time but we may need to go on and file once we find out what Mike Hurst says.”

These never-before-published text messages shed light on the incredulous attitudes of the defendants and their last attempts to save themselves before the scandal broke. After Mississippi Today’s “The Backchannel” series published in April, the News pleaded guilty to several counts including bribery, fraud, wire fraud and racketeering under a favorable plea deal that allows them to avoid any time in state prison as long as they cooperate with the ongoing investigation.

Still, the pleas were a massive fall for a family that had been so politically connected. 

Nancy New was such a close friend to Deborah Bryant that on the same day she plotted with her sons to “go after” her detractors, she lent some of her clothes to the First Lady to try on. Nancy New arranged delivery of the items to the house of the governor’s daughter, Katie Bryant Snell, in text messages with her son Zach New days before their arrests. In explaining the messages, Bryant’s public relations consultant told Mississippi Today that Deborah Bryant had told Nancy New she was getting ready for a trip and had nothing to wear. Close enough to share clothes, it’s unclear what the Bryant family may have discussed with the News about the ongoing investigation. Zach New and Bryant’s son-in-law Stephen Snell were also included in a friendly group message where the men mostly discussed sports.

At that time, the News were aware they were being investigated. They knew their nonprofit’s finances were in disarray. But they didn’t know they were about to be accused of embezzling more than $4 million in federal welfare dollars to use for their private school company and to make investments in Favre’s pharmaceutical venture called Prevacus.

Then-U.S. Attorney Hurst didn’t know it either, because even though the scandal involved federal funds and eventual charges of racketeering – which usually signals the kind of organized that the FBI investigates – the Office of the State Auditor made the initial arrests before involving the federal authorities. The auditor’s office carried out the preceding eight-month investigation on its own and turned to a local district attorney to indict.

The auditor who initially investigated the welfare case, Shad White, is a Bryant appointee and former campaign manager with higher political aspirations.

While the auditor was closing in on the News, Bryant was preparing to accept shares in Prevacus, according to text messages Mississippi Today first reported, the company to which Nancy New had illegally funneled welfare funds.

Hours after leaving office in mid-January 2020, Bryant promised to “get on it hard” in making connections for Prevacus. Within weeks, Bryant officially joined the consulting firm his daughter and former chief of staff Joey Songy recently formed.

Right up until the arrests, Bryant was consulting Prevacus and helping it secure an important investor who was one of the new firm’s clients.

The texts also show Favre had told Bryant that Prevacus was working with welfare officials and receiving funds from Mississippi. Bryant backed out of the deal after the New arrests.  

Prosecutors say the investigation is ongoing, but three years after it began, they have yet to publicly scrutinize the former governor’s deal with Prevacus. 

Though dozens of people received money they shouldn’t have, and dozens more played some role in funneling the money away from the poor, the auditor’s office and District Attorney’s Office selected six people to charge criminally. Neither state nor federal authorities have arrested anyone else related to the scheme.

“Doug, Families First and we, are truly being railroaded,” Nancy New sent in a message in late January to Doug Davis, U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith’s chief of staff.

In 2016, Mississippi Department of Human Services selected Nancy New’s nonprofit, Mississippi Community Education Center, and another nonprofit called Family Resource Center of North Mississippi to head up the rapid expansion of an anti-poverty program called Families First for Mississippi. With that came a cash flow of tens of millions of dollars in grant funds that they would use to carry out official state plans under then-welfare director John Davis, appointed by Phil Bryant. 

This included funding religious initiatives and rallies featuring famous athletes who were earning millions of dollars from the welfare department. Despite being included in official state plans shared with the federal government, these programs are now considered central to the biggest welfare spending scandal in state history. The money came from a ‘90s-era federal welfare program with lax oversight and a reputation for being a slush fund. Soon, the spending spun out of control.

In mid-2019, John Davis’ deputy Jacob Black and other employees gathered information about how John Davis was paying retired WWE wrestler Brett DiBiase for work he didn’t conduct and possibly double dipping the welfare department for a program run by Teddy DiBiase Jr. 

Black himself was instrumental in creating many of the questionable grants and the auditor recently served him a civil demand to repay the state $3 million. But Black was also the original source of the tip that Shad White has credited with toppling the scheme. Black took the tip to Bryant, who took the information to Shad White, according to MDHS officials, Bryant staffers and other sources. 

Shad White has maintained that Bryant was the whistleblower of the scandal, crediting the former governor for toppling the scheme.

Within a few months, the auditor’s examination of John Davis’ welfare spending led them to the New nonprofit. The auditor raided Mississippi Community Education Center’s offices in October 2019 and the Mississippi Department of Human Services restricted funding to the nonprofit, jeopardizing vendors who were relying on their reimbursement.

“Our lives and office have been turned upside down for over 3 months now and we deserve answers,” Nancy New’s other son, Jess New, local attorney and director of the Mississippi Oil and Gas Board, said in a text.

While he was never included in criminal charges, Jess New had his hand in business operations at the nonprofit and other MDHS offshoots John Davis was attempting to create, according to a recently filed lawsuit. The civil , filed by MDHS, seeks $2.6 million in damages from Jess New, which is included as part of the $19.4 million the suit is asking from his mother. 

In early January 2020, the owner of Prevacus received a subpoena from the auditor’s office for documents related to the stock he offered the News in exchange for their grant funding, according to text messages and documents Mississippi Today obtained. On Jan. 15, 2020, Gov. Tate Reeves took office. 

In the next few weeks, the News scrambled to get information about the investigation and why they weren’t receiving payment from MDHS. They thought Phil Bryant and his newly appointed welfare director, Christopher Freeze, made the call to freeze their nonprofit’s funding before he left office. 

“PB and CF made the decision to freeze the money. Definitely looks like the organization and lord knows who else will be charged for something…..no idea what,” Jess New wrote on Jan. 25, 2020.

“Geez all the hard work just to be thrown under the bus,” Zach New responded.

Jess New told his brother that Christie Webb, the operator of the Family Resource Center, the other nonprofit that was spending welfare money wildly, had reached out to ask Congressman Trent to release their funding from MDHS.

Kelly’s representative Susan Parker told Mississippi Today in a statement that his office has “no knowledge of what happened between the Mississippi Department of Human Services and the Family Resource Center beyond published reports.”

“After discovering there was an ongoing investigation into the Family Resource center, our office refrained from getting involved in this issue,” she wrote.

The north Mississippi nonprofit has since lost its MDHS funding altogether.

The News had also reached out to Brad White, who was heading up Reeves’ transition as his chief of staff. Zach asked his brother, “BW against us?”

“No he’s just in the middle,” Jess New responded. “They know it’s a f’ed up situation and PB’s the issue.”

Brad White told Mississippi Today that, to the best of his recollection, two groups reached out to the Reeves transition team, including people on behalf of judges who were using some of the funds to help children in the court system. The two nonprofits who ran Families First, Nancy New and Webb’s nonprofits, had been at odds with each other in the last year. The two nonprofits were also responsible for the programmatic side of a judicial initiative called Family First, which aimed to revamp the state’s foster care system by providing more preventative services. The initiative, headed up by Deborah Bryant, crumbled during the investigation.

“I know enough about things from my time at the auditor’s office that you don’t get involved in anything remotely involved with an investigation,” Brad White said. “I think it was like, ‘I wish you the best, and there’s nothing I can do.’”

Brad White said both the New contingent and the judges wanted help in unfreezing their funds, but that he told them the transition team could not help with that and that the new administration would follow any recommendations or guidance from the state auditor’s office on the case.

The News were left speculating what exactly they were in trouble for, who was against them and why their funding was cut off.

“Because we’re being investigated is why. We need someone to investigate the investigators and this BS investigation,” Jess New texted his mother on Jan. 26, 2020. “It’s a witch hunt and blatant harassment.”

In the following days, Nancy New took her associate David Kelly, a consultant for Oxford-based low-income real estate developer Chartre Consulting, to meet with Hurst. 

New’s organization had promised to provide classes and resource referrals to the residents of Chartre’s properties. The partnership allowed New’s nonprofit to increase the headcount of people served through Families First, but the program struggled to persuade residents to truly participate, Chartre Consulting owner Clarence Chapman told Mississippi Today. The services amounted to Families First hosting events where they gave away free hot dogs.

“It didn’t penetrate as much as we would have liked, but that’s just the nature of our residents and that income level. But they (Nancy New’s nonprofit) worked hard to get participation and I wish they’d still have this underway where it could benefit our residents,” Chapman said.

He sees the News as victims of Bryant and Davis’ vague plan to turn the state’s welfare system into a resource referral network instead of providing direct aid.

“It’s a shame the way the regulations are written to let the governor use the money like that and then poor Nancy, who was a very respectable person, has been abused by the system,” he continued. “She got way over her head and didn’t realize what she was dealing with and is the whipping child for a bunch of different reasons here and it’s destroyed her health and her finances. And it’s sad, because she’s a good person … She appears to be used as a conduit to spread money and do what others wanted done with it who had the authority to do that.”

Someone with knowledge of the meeting said that Hurst, two assistant U.S. attorneys and an FBI agent met with Nancy New and David Kelly, and New’s attorney attended by phone. David Kelly initially agreed to an interview with Mississippi Today and then stopped responding to calls and messages.

If Nancy New chose to meet with Hurst in an attempt to avoid prosecution, it didn’t work. Instead, it tipped off federal authorities to White’s investigation and caused them to reach out to the auditor for more information. 

Then, Jess New got some new information.

“Don’t think PB suspended our funds….I’ll explain later,” he texted on Feb. 3, 2020, the day before a Hinds County grand jury handed down the indictments, referring to Phil Bryant. “Still may not hurt to reach out to him for any help.”

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

MDOC and deputy commissioners now decide method of execution

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New law gives MDOC commissioner choice in how people are executed

Mississippi is set to become the first state where prison officials can choose how a person sentenced to is executed. 

Starting July 1, the Department of Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain and two deputy commissioners will decide the method of execution for incarcerated people: lethal injection, gas chamber, electrocution or firing squad.

“This statute throws it all into the hands of the Mississippi Department of Corrections without guidance and restrictions,” said Ngozi Ndulue, deputy director of the Death Penalty Information Center. 

Twenty-seven states have the death penalty. Ndulue said most use lethal injection as the primary execution method and some have backup execution methods if lethal injection isn’t available. 

Cain has witnessed several executions as the former warden of Louisiana’s Angola State Prison and Mississippi’s most recent execution as the corrections commissioner. 

“The courts are the ones who decide the penalties for , not MDOC,” he said in a Friday statement. “We just hold the keys. When the court orders me, I am required by Mississippi statute to carry out the sentence.”

The law does not specify how MDOC officials are supposed to decide what execution method to select. 

Ndulue said this can lead to decisions being made in an “internal, non-transparent way.” There are considerations, including whether lethal injection drugs are available and there are protocols and training of how to use other forms of execution, she said. 

Mississippi is also a state that has a lot of secrecy about its execution protocols and how it obtains lethal injection drugs, she said. 

“This is something the public doesn’t have a lot of insight into,” Ndulue said. “What is actually going on?”

MDOC officials will have this new responsibility through House Bill 1479 proposed by Rep. Nick Bain, R-Corinth. He chairs the Judiciary B Committee and is vice chair of the Judiciary En Banc Committee. 

Bain said the governor and ’s offices asked for the legislation to be filed because the state was having difficulty obtaining lethal injection drugs to carry out death sentences. 

The previous version of the law, passed in 2017, said if lethal injection was not possible due to unavailable drugs or a legal challenge, an incarcerated person could be put to death by gas chamber. Electrocution was the next option if lethal gas was unavailable and the last alternate was execution by firing squad. 

Lethal injection remains Mississippi’s preferred form of execution, according to legislation. 

“We put language in the final draft saying it is our policy, as the Legislature, that lethal injection be chosen,” Bain said. “That gives (the commissioner) the idea that we want lethal injection and that should be the way to do it.”

Within seven days of receiving a warrant of execution from the , the MDOC commissioner must inform the prisoner of the method in writing. 

Ndulue said the law could lead to last minute legal action about executions. For Mississippi’s most recent execution, there was less than 30 days between the execution being issued and being carried out. 

States have argued they need backup methods of execution because of challenges of obtaining lethal injection drugs, she said. 

Ndulue said some drug manufacturers have objected to their drugs being used for executions. Some states have resorted to getting lethal injection drugs from overseas or going to compounding pharmacies to have the drugs made, she said. 

Lethal injection has also been called into question through legal action. 

An ongoing federal civil filed in 2015 on behalf of three people serving on death row in Mississippi argues the state’s lethal injection protocol violates their right to due process and violates the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. 

Mississippi and other states have used a mix of three drugs including an anesthetic during executions. 

The lawsuit claims compounded or mixed drugs could be “counterfeit, expired, contaminated and/or sub-potent” and could result in prisoners being conscious throughout their execution and subjected to “a tortuous death by suffocation and cardiac arrest.” 

The bill that goes into effect next month specifies the lethal injection drugs used in execution must be “a substance or substance in a lethal quantity” rather than one containing an anesthetic, paralytic agent and potassium chloride, as the 2017 version of the law laid out. 

From the early 1800s to 1940, all Mississippi executions were by hanging, according to MDOC. Execution by electrocution took place from 1940 to 1952, followed by the use of a portable electric chair moved from county to county. Lethal gas executions took place between 1954 and 1984. 

Mississippi carried out 35 gas chamber executions between 1955 and 1989, according to MDOC. 

Between 2002 and 2022, 18 people were executed by lethal injection in the state, according to MDOC.  

All executions are performed at the at Parchman, which is where death row is. 

For women, executions happen in a facility designated by the MDOC commissioner, according to state law. The one woman serving on death row is at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl. 

Mississippi’s most recent execution was that of David Neal Cox on Nov. 17, 2021. 

He was convicted on multiple charges, including the murder of his estranged wife, Kim Cox, and the sexual assault of his then-underage stepdaughter in front of his dying wife in 2010 in Union County. 

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

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