Mississippi Attorney General

In Mississippi, Christian forgiveness does not equate to felony voting reforms

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In Mississippi, Christian forgiveness does not equate to felony voting reforms

As Haley Barbour faced an onslaught of criticism for pardoning dozens of people convicted of felonies as his tenure as governor ended in 2012, he cited his Christian beliefs for his actions.

“Christianity teaches us forgiveness and second chances. I believe in second chances, and I try hard to be forgiving,” the former governor said soon after leaving office of the more than 200 acts of clemency he granted.

During his eight years as governor, Barbour, like most other Mississippi politicians, did nothing to make that forgiveness more inclusive by creating a system that would make it easier for the literally tens of thousands of people convicted of felonies to have their rights restored.

Most Mississippi politicians wear their Christianity on their sleeve. The primary tenet of the Christian faith is forgiveness and redemption. Yet, they do not see as part of that forgiveness and redemption the restoration of voting rights for people convicted of felonies.

Multiple studies have made the argument that restoring voting rights increases the odds that people who have been convicted of felonies will become productive members of society.

Dennis Hopkins, a 46-year-old Potts Camp resident who lost his right to vote as a teenager when he was convicted of grand larceny, but is now a productive member of the community in the north Mississippi hamlet, explained to lawmakers the importance of voting.

“Voting to me is everything,” Hopkins said in 2021 during a legislative hearing. “I tell my kids how important the vote is … it shames me to tell them I can’t vote.”

The old adage that the judicial system moves slowly has never been truer than when it comes to Mississippi’s one-in-the-nation system of preventing people convicted of certain felonies from regaining their voting rights.

On Sept. 25, 2021 (more than 10 months ago), the entire panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments about whether Mississippi’s felony disenfranchisement is unconstitutional. Seventeen judges heard the argument at the federal courthouse in New Orleans. It is not an everyday occurrence for the entire panel to hear oral arguments, so the assumption was that the federal appeals court was placing a priority on the issue.

But since that September day, there have been crickets from the court.

At some point, the court finally will issue a ruling.

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 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 and for others it does not. It just depends on the preference of the judge granting the expungement.

During the 2022 session, legislation was passed clarifying that the judicial expungement would always include the restoration of voting rights. That modest legislation would have been the biggest change to the state’s felony voting system since it was incorporated into the Mississippi Constitution in 1890. But it was vetoed by Gov. Tate Reeves.

The in past decisions has given the states broad leeway in stripping the right to vote for those convicted of felonies. But it is worth pointing out that Mississippi is in a distinct minority of states (less than 10) not automatically restoring voting rights at some point after a sentence is completed.

The aforementioned 5th Circuit is considering the argument that the Mississippi felony voting ban is unconstitutional because it was placed in the 1890 state Constitution as one of many provisions intended to prevent African Americans from voting. If it was done for racial reasons, then it should be unconstitutional, the proponents of the argue. Mississippi Lynn Fitch opposes the lawsuit.

In the 1890s, the wrote the disfranchisement of people of specific felonies was placed in the Constitution “to obstruct the exercise of the franchise by the negro race” by targeting “the offenses to which its weaker members were prone.” The crimes selected by lawmakers to go into the provision were thought by the white political leaders at the time as more likely to be committed by African Americans. They also imposed poll taxes, literacy tests, segregated schools, a ban of mixed race marriages and other racist provisions into the Constitution.

They, of course, took all of those steps in the name of Christianity.

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

Supreme Court rejects plea for quick ruling on effort to stop abortion ban

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Supreme Court rejects plea for quick ruling on effort to stop abortion ban

A three-judge panel of the state Supreme Court has rejected the petition of to allow the resumption of abortions as early as this week.

The Supreme Court justices have said that instead they will wait for arguments from Lynn Fitch’s office to be submitted before ruling on the petition of the supporters. The three-justice panel of James Kitchens, Dawn Beam and Kenneth Griffis has given Fitch’s office until July 25 to respond to a petition requesting that the Supreme Court rescind the abortion ban.

The abortion ban was put in place after Fitch’s office successfully argued before the for the reversal of , a decades-old decision that provided a national right to an abortion.

The abortion ban went into effect in Mississippi on Thursday. At the time the ban went into effect, Jackson Women’s Health Organization was the only abortion provider in the state. The clinic had filed a asking that the ban been postponed based on a 1998 state Supreme Court ruling saying that there was a right to an abortion in Mississippi’s constitution separate from the right granted under the U.S. Constitution in Roe v. Wade.

Despite the state Supreme Court saying the right to an abortion existed in the Mississippi Constitution, Chancery Judge Debbra Halford of Franklin County refused to stop the ban from taking effect.

Now the clinic is asking the state Supreme Court to rule on the issue and is requesting a quick decision.

In a motion, attorneys for the clinic said, “By July 25, Mississippians will have been without abortion access for over two weeks. They will have been denied their rights under the Mississippi Constitution to privacy and bodily autonomy, as they are compelled by the state to endure the risks of pregnancy and bear children against their will. The deprivation of constitutional rights, and the harms of forced pregnancy and childbirth, are substantial and irreversible. Absent relief from this Court, the harm will continue.”

The three-judge panel rejected that argument, opting instead to wait for arguments from the AG, due July 25.

The abortion ban is in effect in Mississippi because of a trigger law passed in 2007 that went into effect if Roe v. Wade was overturned. Attorneys for the abortion clinic say the 1998 state Supreme Court ruling recognizing a Mississippi constitutional right to an abortion supersedes the trigger law and another Mississippi law banning abortions after six weeks.

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

Mississippi abortion law: an FAQ

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FAQ: Abortion in Mississippi post-Roe v. Wade

Mississippi Today has compiled a list of questions in regards to in Mississippi after the overturned last week, and Mississippi’s trigger law banning abortions is set to go into effect in less than 10 days.

We will continue to update this FAQ. Click below to view a specific question.

Jump to a question

What case did the Supreme Court rule on?

Dobbs v. centers around Mississippi legislation passed and signed in 2018 called “The Act to Prohibit Abortion After 15 Weeks.” That law and an even stricter law that would ban abortion after six weeks were both ruled unconstitutional twice in the last few years — by both a U.S. District Court and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The U.S. Supreme Court in May 2021 decided it would take up Dobbs after meeting 13 times to consider it, a move many legal analysts called unprecedented. This marked the first time since the landmark 1973 abortion rights case Roe v. Wade that the U.S. Supreme Court has taken up a pre-viability ban — a law that prohibits access to abortion based on the amount of time pregnant before the fetus is viable, or around 24 weeks.

READ MORE: U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade

How did the court rule?

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark case that established a person’s right to an abortion.

What were the arguments?

When the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for the Dobbs case on Dec. 1, 2021, Chief Justice John Roberts, viewed as the most moderate of the court’s conservative wing, appeared frustrated with what he suggested was a bait-and-switch strategy the state used to transform the case into a challenge to Roe and Casey. Roberts voiced his preference to stick to that narrower question on pre-viability bans, saying “the thing that is at issue before us today is 15 weeks.”

Justice Samuel Alito rejected that position, saying “the only real options we have” are to reaffirm Roe or to overrule it.

Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan wrote in their dissent that above all others, poor women who cannot afford to seek out an abortion in a state where it remains legal will be harmed by the Court’s ruling.

Yes, for now. Mississippi is one of 13 states with a trigger law, which Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch certified on Monday. That law, which bans abortion in all cases except where the mother’s life is in danger or a rape that’s been reported to law enforcement, would go into effect 10 days from Monday. But as Mississippi’s trigger law has been discussed in the state and nationwide, no one has taken into account the fact that a 1998 ruling by the declaring a right to an abortion is granted in the state Constitution.

Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the state’s sole abortion clinic, has filed a in Chancery Court arguing the trigger law is invalid because of the constitutional right to an abortion spelled out by the state Supreme Court in the 1998 decision.

READ MORE: 1998 state court ruling leads to lawsuit that could prolong Mississippi abortion fight

What is Mississippi’s trigger law and what does it mean for Mississippi?

The law permits abortions only when the mother’s life is at risk or when the pregnancy resulted from a rape that has been reported to law enforcement. The trigger law and fetal heartbeat ban apply to all forms of abortion, including medication abortions that the World Health Organization says can safely end a pregnancy up to 12 weeks.

READ MORE: Fitch certifies Mississippi’s trigger law banning abortion in nearly all cases

Are abortions still being performed in Mississippi?

Yes, but likely not for long. The trigger law takes effect 10 days after the attorney general issues a determination that Roe has been overturned. For the first time in 50 years, it will be nearly impossible to obtain a legal abortion in the state of Mississippi.

READ MORE: Mississippi abortion clinic plans to provide services as long as law allows

An all but forgotten 1998 ruling by the state Supreme Court declaring a right to an abortion is granted in the state Constitution could prolong the fight over abortion in Mississippi despite last week’s landmark decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

Jackson Women’s Health Organization has filed a lawsuit in Hinds County Chancery Court arguing the trigger law is invalid because of the constitutional right to an abortion spelled out by the state Supreme Court in the 1998 decision. Because all four Hinds County judges recused themselves from the case, the state Supreme Court will likely appoint a special judge to hear it.

Who typically gets abortions in Mississippi?

About 5,000 Mississippians had an abortion in 2020, according to the Mississippi Department of Health.

The rate of abortions in Mississippi was 4.3 abortions occurring in the state per 1,000 reproductive-age women in 2017– one of the lowest in the country. But the rate of Mississippians receiving abortions was 8.3 per 1,000 reproductive-age women, according to the Guttmacher Institute, indicating that many Mississippians have already been seeking abortions out of state. (The national rate was 11.4 per 1,000 reproductive-age women in 2019.)

READ MORE: Who gets abortions in Mississippi?

What will happen to Mississippi’s only abortion clinic?

Diane Derzis, the owner of Mississippi’s only abortion clinic, the facility at the center of the Dobbs case, has said it will close. She plans to open a new clinic in Las Cruces, New Mexico, about an hour from El Paso.

Are medication abortions — or abortion pills — legal in Mississippi?

The trigger law and fetal heartbeat ban apply to all forms of abortion, including medication abortions that the World Health Organization says can safely end a pregnancy up to 12 weeks.

But reproductive rights advocates and many legal experts say it will be nearly impossible to keep medication abortion out of the state, given that state can’t search people’s mail. Local abortion rights activists vow to help maintain access to the pills. Medication abortions already accounted for the majority of abortions performed at Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

READ MORE: What does abortion look like in Mississippi now?

For many Mississippians, the closest place to obtain a legal abortion will be southern Illinois. Every neighboring state is also set to ban abortion in almost all cases.

Memphis Center for Reproductive Health, a clinic that is more accessible for many north Mississippians than the Jackson clinic, has announced plans to set up a new location in Carbondale, Illinois – a six-hour drive from Jackson.

What are lawmakers in Mississippi doing to address that state’s infant mortality rate, the highest in the country, and the state’s high maternal mortality rate?

Republican leaders have offered few proposals to address the state’s abysmal infant and maternal health outcomes. This year, Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, killed a Republican-led proposal to expand postpartum coverage from 60 days to 12 months after childbirth.

The Legislature recently passed a bill that will provide a $3.5 million tax credit for crisis pregnancy centers, loosely regulated nonprofits that offer counseling and resources for pregnant women but which sometimes peddle inaccurate information about abortion.

Gov. Tate Reeves has not responded to questions about how much money his administration would invest to support extending postpartum Medicaid coverage for new moms – a measure that died in the Legislature this year. About 60% of pregnant women in Mississippi are on Medicaid.

In early June 2022, though, the governor published an op-ed titled “The New Pro-Life Agenda,” declaring that the pro-life movement must be more than anti-abortion. Almost no specifics on policy and funding proposals were mentioned. He wrote that his office has spent the past five months analyzing “our state’s laws and regulations in order to identify any possible existing rules that might present an obstacle to expectant mothers.” His office did not answer questions about what the review had found, and Mississippi Today is still waiting for the office to fulfill a public records request for that documentation.

Reeves, along with Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, praised last week’s SCOTUS decision overturning Roe v. Wade, but also said that now it means mothers, children and families will need more resources.

On Monday, Hosemann announce the “Senate Study Group on Women, Children and Families,” a nine-member committee tasked with making recommendations to the Legislature on policies pertaining to families and children from birth to 3 years old. Gunn announced last Friday the “Speaker’s Commission on the Sanctity of Life” to examine issues and policies affecting mothers and children.

Are you following news around reproductive rights and abortion access in Mississippi?

READ MORE: The state fighting to dismantle abortion rights has a long history of permissive abortion laws

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

Judges recuse from Mississippi abortion law case

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Hinds County judges recuse themselves from abortion lawsuit challenging ‘trigger law’

All four chancellors recused themselves from the filed by the state’s only clinic asking that a law banning abortions in Mississippi be stopped from taking effect.

The four chancery judges, Denise Owens, J. Dewayne Thomas, Crystal Wise Martin and Tiffany Grove, recused themselves from the case Tuesday and requested the state Supreme Court appoint a special judge to hear the case.

Earlier on Tuesday, attorneys for , the only remaining abortion clinic in the state, filed a request for a temporary restraining order.

The order, if enacted by the court, would temporarily halt a trigger law that would ban most abortions in the state and another law that would ban abortions in the state after the sixth week of pregnancy.

READ MORE: 1998 state court ruling leads to lawsuit that could prolong Mississippi abortion fight

, which upheld the constitutional right to an abortion, was overturned on Friday in a watershed decision by the . On Monday, Lynn Fitch certified that Roe had been overturned, meaning that under an existing (or trigger) law, abortions would be banned in the state after 10 days.

But later Monday, the lawsuit was filed saying the trigger law and the six-week ban were invalid because an all but forgotten 1998 ruling by the state Supreme Court that held the right to an abortion was protected by the state constitution.

“Given that the decision was issued by the based on the Mississippi Constitution, it is not dependent upon the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the U.S. Constitution,” the lawsuit filed on behalf of the abortion clinic said.

The 1998 Supreme Court decision saying the right to an abortion was protected by the state constitution upheld a decision issued by then-Hinds County Chancellor Patricia Wise. The lawsuit filed Tuesday by the abortion providers was originally assigned to Wise’s daughter, Chancellor Crystal Wise Martin, before she and the other Hinds County chancellors recused themselves Tuesday.

It is not clear whether the state will try to enforce the trigger law if the case is not resolved within 10 days. A spokeswoman for Fitch’s office has said the office would not comment on pending litigation.

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

1998 state court ruling leads to lawsuit that could prolong Mississippi abortion fight

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1998 state court ruling leads to lawsuit that could prolong Mississippi abortion fight

An all but forgotten 1998 ruling by the state Supreme Court declaring a right to an is granted in the state Constitution could prolong the fight over abortion in Mississippi despite last week’s landmark decision overturning .

The Mississippi Supreme Court in the 1998 decision, , said that the state Constitution — not just the U.S. Constitution — also granted abortion rights.

The Pro-Choice decision would supersede Mississippi’s trigger law, passed in 2007 by the Legislature, that stated that abortion would be illegal in the state after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. 

Jackson Women’s Health Organization has filed a in Chancery Court arguing the trigger law is invalid because of the constitutional right to an abortion spelled out by the state Supreme Court in the 1998 decision. The lawsuit also will contend a separate state law that bans abortions after six weeks also should be invalid because of the same ruling. A federal court injunction blocking the six-week law from taking effect will be lifted based on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last Friday overturning Roe v. Wade.

“The Mississippi Supreme Court’s 1998 decision interpreting the Mississippi Constitution exists completely independent of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions about the federal Constitution. It is binding precedent.” said Rob McDuff of the and who was an attorney on the 1998 lawsuit. “As confirmed by the Mississippi Supreme Court in that case, the decision about whether and when to have children belongs to individuals and families, not to the state’s politicians.” 

Under the trigger law, Mississippi Lynn Fitch is charged with certifying that Roe v. Wade had been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Fitch, whose office filed the lawsuit in Dobbs v. leading to the reversal of Roe, filed the certification Monday morning, meaning abortions in the state will be illegal within 10 days except in the cases of the mother’s life being in danger and of a law enforcement-reported rape. It is not clear how the lawsuit will impact the certification and how abortion will be handled in the state while the lawsuit is adjudicated.

The 1998 decision was written by then-Justice Michael Sullivan of Hattiesburg. He was joined by four other members of the nine-person court.

Sullivan wrote, “The right to privacy in article III, § 32, of the Mississippi Constitution encompasses the right to autonomous bodily integrity. The right to choose to have an abortion, like many other medical procedures, is included in the right to autonomous bodily integrity. While we do not find the Mississippi Constitution to provide an explicit right to an abortion, abortion is protected within the penumbras of the right to privacy.”

The 1998 case was filed by Pro-Choice Mississippi challenging restrictions placed on abortion by the state, such as requiring a 24-hour waiting period after receiving counseling at the abortion clinic, requiring licensing of the abortion clinics and requiring consent of both parents for minors to receive an abortion. The court ruled that those restrictions were allowable and not an undue burden on women, but still recognized a right to an abortion under the Mississippi Constitution.

The groups involved in filing the lawsuit for Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the last abortion clinic in the state, are the Mississippi Center for Justice, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison,

“Abortion remains legal in Mississippi,” said Hillary Schneller, senior staff attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights. “We will continue to work to ensure that every Mississippian can make their own decisions about their body, their lives, their relationships and their families.”

Mississippi is one of 13 states with a trigger law. But as Mississippi’s trigger law has been discussed in the state and nationwide, no one has taken into account the fact that the state Supreme Court has said the Mississippi Constitution protects the right to an abortion.

Apparently, Mississippi legislators also had forgotten about the 1998 state Supreme Court decision when they passed the trigger law in 2007.

“The government should not be deciding matters of childbirth for the women and families of Mississippi,” said Vangela M. Wade, president and CEO of Mississippi Center for Justice. 

Editor’s note: Vangela M. Wade is a member of Mississippi Today’s board of directors.

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

Landmark tobacco lawsuit settled 25 years ago — what happened to money?

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Landmark tobacco lawsuit settled 25 years ago — what happened to money?

If Mississippi’s political leaders had stuck to their plan, the state would now have a of more than $4 billion earning about $320 million annually to spend on , based on projections made in 1999.

But, as often is pointed out, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Such is the case with the health care trust fund that was created in 1999 with the money from the state’s settlement with the tobacco companies of a landmark to collect government funds spent treating smoking-related illnesses.

The settlement funds have been delivered to Mississippi as promised, but the promise of a trust fund was broken long ago.

The lawsuit, which originated in Mississippi, turned into a $365 billion national settlement that was announced by then-Mississippi Mike Moore and others on June 20, 1997 – 25 years ago.

The lawsuit guaranteed Mississippi $4 billion over 25-years with annual payments of $100 million or more, based on a formula, continuing forever.

“The money is good, but the most important thing is when you look at kids smoking, it was 27% then and it is now less than 4%. We have done a lot of wonderful things in the last 25 years,” said Moore who resides in Madison County near Jackson and remains active in groups combatting cigarette use. “Adult smoking was around 30% and it is now 12%.”

He said lung disease has been cut in half and the prevalence of other diseases associated with smoking also is down. The lawsuit placed restrictions on the cigarette-makers advertising to young people and played a key role in campaigns that have led to significant reductions in tobacco use.

Moore concedes that he is disappointed that the trust fund was fleeting.

“It breaks my heart,” Moore said recently.

Slowly at first, state leaders began removing funds from the trust fund to fill budget holes. In 2005, legislation was passed to take $240 million from the trust fund to plug a deficit. At first the Democratic-led House rejected the proposal, touting instead an increase in the cigarette tax – at 18 cents a pack one of the nation’s lowest – to plug the hole. But Republican Gov. Haley Barbour resisted the tax proposal.

In the end, the House agreed to the raid as long as there was a commitment to replenish the trust fund. Each year legislators and Barbour balked at making the repayments to the trust fund while at the same time removing more money to fill other holes.

When Barbour took office in 2004 there was more than $630 million in the fund. When he left office, the fund contained $50 million.

Eventually, the Legislature repealed the trust fund.

The erosion and eventual elimination of the trust fund was bipartisan. It began to a limited degree under Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and accelerated under Barbour. Both Republican and Democrats in the Legislature at the very least acquiesced in the trust fund withdrawals.

Still, it could be argued that the funds were used for important purposes – primarily to evade Medicaid cuts. But it is at least worth pointing out that many of the same political leaders who participated in the trust fund raids have passed tax cuts in recent years that will total more than $1 billion annually when fully enacted. Could some of those funds have gone to restoring the trust fund?

The lawsuit was concocted by Clarksdale attorney Mike Lewis upon visiting a friend – a chronic smoker suffering from cancer. He took the idea of suing the cigarette companies to recoup public funds spent treating smoking-related illnesses to Moore. The AG brought into the discussions Richard Scruggs, a nationally recognized attorney from , Moore’s hometown.

The lawsuit advanced the template of the state contracting with private attorneys. If the state prevailed, the private attorneys won big. If they did not, they received nothing. And the caveat was that the private attorneys had to use their own money. Legislative leaders made it clear Moore should not expend any state funds on the tobacco lawsuit that they viewed as a pipe dream.

“Scruggs spent every penny he had,” Moore said. “If it had not worked out, he would have had nothing left. It turned out the other way. But that is not what people were predicting.”

Of course, years later Scruggs was convicted in federal court in a judicial bribery scheme involving a lawsuit where some of the attorneys involved in the case were bickering about their share of funds from the settlement.

Some have argued that the judicial bribery tainted the lawsuit.

Moore conceded Scruggs made a mistake, but the lawsuit has been good for the state and nation – even though it did not result in a health care trust fund for Mississippi.

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

Prominent 2020 election denier aiding congressional campaign

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Prominent 2020 election denier is aiding Mississippi congressional campaign

Michael Cassidy, a Republican seeking to unseat incumbent Rep. Michael Guest in Mississippi’s 3rd Congressional District in the June 7 primary, has aligned himself with one of the nation’s most outspoken advocates of overthrowing the 2020 presidential election.

Matt Braynard, who has received broad national attention for his radical views on the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 Capitol attack that ensued, has received more than $13,000 as a consultant to the Cassidy campaign, according to the Federal Election Commission website.

Braynard, who worked about five months for the Donald Trump presidential campaign in 2016 before being fired, has been one of the principal proponents of the myth that if all the legal votes were counted in 2020, Trump would still be president of the United States.

And Braynard, according to multiple national reports, has profited handsomely from that position, with one national outlet describing his work as: “Forrest Gumping his way through the post-election Trump universe.”

His presence in Mississippi highlight the fact that for many Republican primary voters, the 2020 election is still an issue. Most of the congressional candidates who will be on the ballot in Tuesday’s Republican primary in Mississippi have also embraced, to some extent, the claim that voter irregularities or outright fraud cost Trump the election.

All three Republican incumbents — Guest in the 3rd District, Trent of the 1st District, Steven Palazzo of the 4th — voted to not certify the 2020 presidential election in several key swing states, as did U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith.

Mississippi’s senior U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker was the only Mississippi congressional Republican who voted to certify the election in every state.

Guest, who Cassidy seeks to unseat, was the only Republican in the state’s congressional delegation to vote in favor of creating the commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — an attempt to stop the congressional vote certifying the presidential election. Guest, a former prosecutor in central Mississippi, said he voted to create the commission at the request of U.S. Capitol .

Cassidy, on his campaign website, has sharply criticized Guest’s vote for the Jan. 6 commission. Guest is considered a heavy favorite in Tuesday’s primary that also includes Republican Thomas Griffin.

Braynard has been active in defending many of the people arrested in the Jan. 6 riots, saying they were engaged only in peaceful protests.

He has been a paid consultant testifying on instances of alleged voter irregularities. Based on testimony, he was paid $150,000 to testify in Wisconsin about the 2020 presidential election and $40,000 for similar testimony in Arizona. Records indicate he also testified post-election in other key swing states — Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Braynard’s data was cited in the infamous filed by embattled Texas Ken Paxton’s attempting to throw out millions of votes in the swing states. The lawsuit, which maintained with no evidence that Biden had “less that one in a quadrillion” chance of winning several states, was joined by Lynn Fitch and numerous Mississippi politicians. It was promptly dismissed by a federal judge.

The Texas Bar Association is currently investigating Paxton related to his filing of the lawsuit.

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

AG Lynn Fitch cites abortion case backlash as reason to seal files related to her father’s estate

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AG Lynn Fitch cites abortion case backlash as reason to seal files related to her father’s estate

Lynn Fitch is citing backlash she’s received from her before the seeking to reverse a national right to an as reason to seal records dealing with the probate of the estate of her deceased father.

Fitch, a first-term Republican , and her sister, Lisa Fitch Wavro, are challenging whether their father William O. Fitch, who died in September 2021, was of sound “mental capacity” when he terminated a prenuptial agreement he had with his wife, Aleita Fitch, who is the sisters’ stepmother. Because of William Fitch’s alleged mental state in January 2021, when the prenuptial was dissolved, the sisters contend they are “the only beneficiaries” of the estate.

Fitch recently filed a motion in Marshall County Chancery Court asking the judge to seal “any and all financial-related information of the estate to protect the integrity of these proceedings from attention and media coverage that might hamper resolution of the estate.”

Fitch says that if her father’s case remains public record, she would be subject to “harassment, abuse and even threats to personal safety” — citing threats she has received as she argues that the Supreme Court overturn .

“The attorney general for the state of Mississippi would be subject to harassment, abuse and even threats to her personal safety if the information is included in the public record of the court,” Fitch’s filing says. “General Fitch has been the subject of threatening comments and actions in the past because of positions she has taken as attorney general, and in particular recently in response to the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health case which she brought before the United States Supreme Court and as to which a draft opinion of the court was leaked.”

The SCOTUS case seeks to reverse the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that guaranteed a woman’s right to an abortion under certain parameters. The case was argued in December 2021, and recently a draft opinion was leaked that would provide enough votes on the Supreme Court to reverse the 1973 decision.

READ MORE: Attorney General Lynn Fitch paying outside law, PR firms for fight against abortion

Fitch and her sister have been in a protracted legal battle with Aleita Fitch. The original litigation involved conservatorship of William Fitch.

Those court documents also were sealed. But before they were sealed, there were allegations by Aleita Fitch and her attorneys that Lynn Fitch used the power of her office in the battle over conservatorship.

Published reports accused Fitch of using state “bodyguards” to take without permission money, firearms and other papers from Aleita Fitch’s residence.

In the lawsuit, Aleita Fitch accused the attorney general of moving William Fitch from a hospital in Oxford without having authority to do so. Lynn Fitch responded that Aleita Fitch was verbally abusive toward her father.

William Fitch was a successful north Mississippi businessman who played a significant role in financing his daughter’s first foray into politics, her successful campaign in 2011 for the office of treasurer.

READ MORE: Lynn Fitch wants to overturn Roe v. Wade. Is she up to something more?

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

State files lawsuit to recoup $24M in welfare funds from Favre, WWE wrestlers, 34 others

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State files lawsuit to recoup $24 million in welfare funds from Brett Favre, WWE wrestlers and 34 other people or companies

The Mississippi Department of Human Services is suing 38 people or companies for squandering welfare money that was supposed to address poverty in the poorest state in the nation.

The long awaited civil , which intends to claw back roughly $24 million in federal funds misused in a sprawling scandal officials began to unravel almost three years ago, targets famous athletes Brett Favre, former running back Marcus Dupree, former linebacker Paul Lacoste, retired WWE wrestler Ted “The Million Dollar Man” DiBiase Sr. and his two sons, among others.

The lawsuit details bold disregard from officials and contractors for either effective public spending or for the people they were supposed to be assisting — actions indicative of a state government with a cynical approach to anti-poverty programs.

“I do not understand these people,” attorney Brad Pigott, who wrote the lawsuit, told Mississippi Today by email. “What kind of person would decide that money the law required to be spent helping the poorest people in the poorest state would be better spent being doled out by them to their own families, their own pet projects, and their own favorite celebrities?”

But two entities who received welfare funds through activities referenced in recent criminal pleas — University of Southern Miss Athletic Foundation and tech company Lobaki Inc. — do not appear as defendants in the May 9 filing.

[Editor’s note: A full list of defendants and a copy of the full lawsuit appears near the bottom of this story.]

Nancy New and her son Zach New, who ran a nonprofit that received tens of millions under contracts with the Mississippi Department of Human Services, pleaded guilty in April to several charges bribery and fraud charges related to how they used their nonprofit’s public funding. Much of the money was illegally funneled to other nonprofits or contractors, which were considered “second tier” recipients of the welfare department. The latest civil lawsuit pursues some, but not all of these recipients.

Nancy New admitted to defrauding the government when she paid Lobaki $365,000 to run a virtual reality program. Her son and the nonprofit’s assistant director, Zach New, pleaded guilty to wire fraud for transferring $500,000 to the construction of the physical virtual reality center. He disguised the expenditures as “lease” payments. Zach New also admitted to defrauding the government by transferring $4 million for the construction of the volleyball stadium at University of Southern Mississippi, which was also disguised as a lease.

MDHS originally told WLBT last October that its lawsuit would include the Southern Miss athletic foundation and Lobaki.

And yet, they were apparently removed during the drafting phase, because these recipients do not appear among the defendants in the civil suit filed Monday.

Pigott, the former U.S. Attorney who was hired by MDHS to craft the lawsuit, and the ’s Office, who is also on the suit, have not discussed their process for choosing which welfare recipients to pursue in the case. Many, but not all, of the defendants received demand letters last year from the State Auditor’s Office, the agency that originally investigated the case. The athletic foundation and Lobaki did not.

MDHS was ready to file this lawsuit over six months ago, shortly after independent auditors completed a forensic audit of the welfare program, according to media reports. But the ’s office, which has authority over lawsuits filed on behalf of the state, had to give the agency the green light.

“We wanted this suit to be the best possible suit for the people of Mississippi and we weren’t going to work on any artificial timelines to get a final product,” Michelle Williams, a spokesperson the attorney general’s office, told Mississippi Today last week.

At the center of the welfare scandal is the state’s decision to contract with New’s nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center and another nonprofit called Family Resource Center of North Mississippi to run a state-sanctioned program called Families First for Mississippi. John Davis was the director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services at the time, answering to the governor who appointed him, Phil Bryant. Christi Webb ran the nonprofit in the north.

By 2017, the second year of Davis’ administration, the state was making unprecedented up-front, multi-million dollar payments to the two nonprofits. Most of the money came from a flexible federal block grant called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF.

The lawsuit seeks to establish that Davis and Nancy New agreed together to disregard federal laws that stipulate how states may spend federal welfare dollars. Davis would push millions to the two nonprofits, which used the funds on pet projects, and in exchange, the nonprofits would pay for things that Davis wanted, such as hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of contracts to his family members and wrestler friends and luxury travel arrangements for himself, the lawsuit says.

“That illegal quid pro quo agreement and conspiracy between Davis and New resulted in all of the transfers of TANF funds for non-TANF purposes,” the lawsuit reads.

Mississippi Department of Human Services is asking the court for damages of $23.3 million from Davis and $19.4 million from Nancy New and her nonprofit. These figures represent many of the same expenditures.

But the lawsuit also asserts that the people and organizations who received funding from the nonprofits, who are named as defendants, are also liable because they knew they were receiving payment indirectly from MDHS, “which was not designed or authorized to donate public funds for the private enrichment of wealthy individuals or organizations.”

The lawsuit also says none of the recipients possessed special skills that would allow them to be paid as a contractor for the state’s anti-poverty program, and that they knew they were selected despite lacking experience or qualifications in TANF programming and without a competitive selection process.

The civil complaint represents just the first step of the state’s pursuit of repayment, and attorneys may amend the filing to add defendants when the discovery process is underway.

Circumstances outlined in the lawsuit echo Mississippi Today’s reporting in its investigative series, “The Backchannel,” including Brett Favre’s involvement in the use of MDHS funds to purchase personal investments in the pharmaceutical start-up Prevacus, which was developing a treatment for concussions.

Favre already knew that Nancy New had access to millions in few-strings-attached federal grant funds because he got her to pay $5 million towards the new volleyball stadium that the quarterback was credited with helping build at their alma mater University of Southern Mississippi, texts show.

Favre encouraged his business partner, Prevacus founder Jake Vanlandingham, “to solicit Nancy New to use MDHS grant proceeds to invest in the stock of Prevacus,” the lawsuit reads.

“She has strong connections and gave me 5 million for Vball facility via grant money. Offer her whatever you feel like,” Favre wrote Vanlandingham by text, Mississippi Today first reported.

This text came just two days after the two men met with then-Gov. Phil Bryant to discuss how to elevate and find funding for the company.

While the lawsuit highlights the Prevacus payments — which are also the subject of criminal charges against New and Davis — it does not scrutinize the role of the former governor Phil Bryant, who was also offered stock in the company.

During his last year in office, Bryant used his political influence to help advance Prevacus’ interests. The governor was set to accept the stock after he left office, texts show, but arrests derailed his arrangement.

These details do not appear in the initial civil complaint filed Monday.

The lawsuit describes the Jan. 2, 2019, meeting at Favre’s home, during which he, Vanlandingham, Davis and Nancy and Zach New discussed the deal. On paper, the parties agreed that the would pay Prevacus $1.7 million in exchange for the promise that Prevacus would locate its clinical trial sites in Mississippi. Later, the News would funnel more money into an offshoot called PreSolMD, which Vanlandingham said was developing a preventative cream.

“That representation of that motive or purpose, for investing $1.7 million of TANF funds into Prevacus and/or PreSolMD, was false,” the lawsuit reads. “The written Agreement was a sham, as it concealed the material fact that the actual purpose of the transaction was financially to benefit Defendants Nancy New, Zach New, Jesse New, Jacob Vanlandingham, Brett Favre, Prevacus and PreSolMD.”

The New nonprofit also paid Favre individually $1.1 million under a contract with Favre Enterprises that required the athlete to “speak at three different public events, and one ‘keynote address,’ and that Favre sign autographs at events promoting MCEC itself.”

Neither Favre nor his company, the lawsuit reads, “ever performed any such speaking or autograph ‘services.’ Certainly no services were performed by Favre that had anything to do with the pursuit of lawful TANF purposes.”

The lawsuit asks for a $3.2 million judgement against Favre and $1.1 million against his company. It also asks for $2.1 million from Vanlandingham and his companies.

The civil complaint also chronicles how Davis’ brother-in-law Brian Smith and his nephew Austin Smith, the DiBiase wrestlers, friends of the wrestlers, Brett Favre and his pharmaceutical venture, and other football players came to receive millions in welfare funds.

While Davis was living at the same residence as the Smiths, he got the nonprofits to pay his sister’s husband Brian Smith or his companies over $600,000 in a nine-month span, including a $150,000 lump sum on his first pretend day of employment and $365,050 through a fake “lease” on a building that did not exist. Davis also arranged for the nonprofits to pay his 24-year-old nephew Austin Smith, who also lived at the same house, $426,397 over 17 months. They said he was teaching coding skills to needy students.

“He was not,” the lawsuit reads.

A grand jury reindicted Davis in late March on new bribery and conspiracy charges. The new indictment says he acted in concert with or aided, among others, his sister, Twyla Smith, and her husband, the brother-in-law Brian Smith, but officials have not charged any of the Smiths.

After developing a close relationship with Teddy DiBiase Jr., Davis elevated the wrestler within the department and arranged for him and his companies to receive payment from the nonprofits, the lawsuit says. The wrestler received over $3 million in anti-poverty funds to, among other things, “address the multiple needs of inner-city youth,” the lawsuit reads, though he possessed no qualifications to provide TANF services. He received duplicate payments of $700,000 from each nonprofit, “but not in exchange for services actually performed by Teddy DiBiase,” the lawsuit reads.

“Teddy DiBiase, who spent most of his workday hours accompanying John Davis at MDHS offices and on trips, made no substantial effort to supply any such contractual services, either as an individual or through any organization or entity,” the lawsuit reads.

The lawsuit says Nancy New’s other son Jess New, an attorney and director of the Mississippi State Oil and Gas Board, helped arrange legal entities for Teddy DiBiase so the wrestler could receive more welfare funds.

Davis also directed New to transfer $30,000 in TANF funds to the Northeast Mississippi Football Coaches Association, the lawsuit says, as a reward for the organization selecting Teddy DiBiase as its 2018 banquet speaker.

Teddy DiBiase’s brother Brett DiBiase also received duplicate payments from each of the nonprofits totaling $600,000 and “never performed services of any significance which served any lawful TANF purpose.” Brett DiBiase, who also went to a luxury rehab clinic in Malibu on the nonprofit’s dime and was paid as a contractor while he was there, is the only TANF subrecipient to face criminal charges. He pleaded guilty to fraud in 2020 and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

The lawsuit also alleges the luxury treatment center, Rise in Malibu, knew or should have known they were receiving funds illegally, and names the facility as a defendant.

Davis got the nonprofit to pay for his travel, including first class flights, a luxury hotel suite and a chauffeured limousine, to visit Brett DiBiase in California while he was in treatment.

The lawsuit says Teddy DiBiase urged Davis to divert $1.7 million in TANF funds to his father Ted DiBiase Sr.’s ministry called Heart of David. The department contracted directly with the ministry to provide services for eligible needy people. “After receiving TANF funds pursuant to those contracts, however, they substantially ignored all lawful TANF purposes (and all of the interests of all potential beneficiaries or lawful TANF services).”

Ted DiBiase Sr. used some of the money for his personal expenses, did not maintain any personnel files or a financial management system, and while his organization maintained a website, one of the only visible, public facing products of the program, “the website content was entirely created at MDHS expense by an employee of MDHS, as ordered by John Davis,” the lawsuit reads. Davis, Webb and Family Resource Center employee Amy Harris also arranged for the nonprofit to pay Ted DiBiase Sr. a lump sum of $250,000 for motivational speaking.

When he received the check, Ted DiBiase Sr. emailed his sons, “Look what I got today!” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit asks for almost $2.9 million in damages from Teddy DiBiase and the same from his companies, almost $2 million from Ted DiBiase Sr., $1.7 million from Heart of David, $824,258 from Brett DiBiase, $48,000 from his company Restore2 LLC, and $160,000 from Rise in Malibu.

The lawsuit says Teddy DiBiase Jr. also urged Davis to divert TANF funds to a consulting and management services contractor Adam Such. Davis got Webb to pay Such $250,000, the lawsuit says, to pretend to operate a “Center for Excellence” and a “referral network,” though “nothing of substance was expected of or delivered by Such.”

Davis similarly arranged for TANF money to go to Teddy DiBiase’s business associate Nick Coughlin, an aspiring actor and reality TV contestant who worked for powerful law firm Butler Snow and in the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office in 2020, though he is not an attorney. His degree is in business and marketing from Mississippi College, according to his resume. His resume says his skills are in marketing, brand management, economic development and motivational speaking.

Coughlin received almost $169,000 “to perform vague tasks such as having ‘conversations with industry leaders,’” the lawsuit reads, though he and his company “never engaged in any substantial activity … much less did they do anything toward pursuing lawful TANF purposes.”

Former linebacker and Jackson native Lacoste, described as “active in political affairs in Mississippi,” the lawsuit says, knew or should have known that Davis ran a government agency charged with assisting the disadvantaged when the athlete proposed the director divert money to his fitness program. His company Victory Sports Foundation received $1.3 million to conduct “fitness boot camps” in Flowood, Madison and , the lawsuit says, which were not lawful under TANF guidelines.

The lawsuit asks for $1.3 million in damages from Lacoste and his company.

Both nonprofits paid Marcus Dupree large salaries to act as a “celebrity endorser” and “motivational speaker,” and the New nonprofit effectively purchased and paid the mortgage on a 15-acre property in Flora in the name of Dupree’s nonprofit, Marcus Dupree Foundation, but which the athlete used as his private residence.

The lawsuit asks for $371,000 in damages from Dupree and his foundation.

The lawsuit also attempts to recoup funds from four other entities that it says illegally received TANF funds, SouthTec, Inc., Chase Computer Services Inc., Warren Washington Issaquena Sharkey Community Action Agency and Soul City Hospitality. Mississippi Today first reported that Jackson restauranteur Jeff Good’s nonprofit, Soul City Hospitality, received federal funds through a sublease agreement with the New nonprofit for a project that was supposed to turn “ugly” produce into meals for poor residents. The program fed no one.

The lawsuit asks for damages, plus additional awards for legal fees, from the following defendants:

  • John Davis ($23,256,224)
  • Brian Smith ($615,894)
  • Austin Smith ($426,398)
  • Nancy New ($19,403,504)
  • Mississippi Community Education Center ($19,403,504)
  • New Learning Resources Foundation Inc. ($6,513,393)
  • Zachary New ($2,100,000)
  • Jesse New ($2,654,221)
  • Magnolia Strategies LLC ($554,221)
  • Family Resource Center of North Mississippi ($3,852,720)
  • Christi Webb ($3,852,710)
  • Amy Harris ($250,000)
  • Brett Favre ($3,200,000)
  • Favre Enterprises ($1,100,000)
  • Jake Vanlandingham ($2,100,000)
  • Prevacus, Inc. ($2,100,000)
  • PreSolMD, LLC ($2,100,000)
  • Ted DiBiase Sr. ($1,971,223)
  • Heart of David Ministries Inc. ($1,721,223)
  • Ted “Teddy” DiBiase Jr. ($2,897,487)
  • Priceless Ventures LLC ($2,197,487)
  • Familia Orientem LLC ($700,000)
  • Brett DiBiase ($824,258)
  • Restore2 LLC ($48,000)
  • Rise in Malibu ($160,000)
  • Adam Such ($250,000)
  • SBGI LLC ($250,000)
  • Nicholas Coughlin ($168,733)
  • NCC Ventures LLC ($168,733)
  • Paul LaCoste ($1,309,183)
  • Victory Sports Foundation, Inc. ($1,309,183)
  • Marcus Dupree ($371,000)
  • Marcus Dupree Foundation ($371,000)
  • SouthTec, Inc. ($137,935)
  • Chase Computer Services, Inc. ($375,750)
  • Soul City Hospitality LLC ($200,000)
  • Warren Washington Issaquena Sharkey Community Action Agency ($49,190)

Many of the dollar figures calculated in the lawsuit represent overlapping debts, meaning the total the state could recoup from all defendants is roughly $24 million.

For example, the amount owed by Brett Favre, $3.2 million, includes the same $1.1 million owed by Favre Enterprises, so the total that the state seeks to recoup from those two is $3.2 million.

While Favre has returned $1.1 million to the state, the money is sitting in an account at the State Auditor’s Office, which means, for purposes of the lawsuit, he still owes the money to the welfare department.

Because the money flowed from Davis’ department and most of it through Nancy New’s nonprofit, the lawsuit claims Davis and Nancy New are jointly liable for the large amount that they and others illegally spent. If any of the subrecipients pay their damages, that would likely reduce the debts for Davis and Nancy New.

If the court assesses damages, the welfare department can force the defendants to disclose their assets and ability to pay to ensure the state recoups as much as possible. In cases where the court determines damages are owed due to fraudulent actions, the defendants will not be able to get rid of those debts by filing for bankruptcy.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has declined several interview requests from Mississippi Today about the welfare scandal, but it said in a statement in 2020 that it was waiting for the state’s investigation to conclude before attempting itself to claw back misspent funds.

John Davis and a young former procurement officer for the agency, Gregory “Latimer” Smith, are now the only people with pending criminal charges related to the welfare scandal. Smith, who is facing conspiracy, embezzlement and fraud charges, did not allegedly receive any of the funds himself. Hinds County recently charged Davis in a superseding indictment and the judge rescheduled his trial for Sept. 26, 2022.

Nancy New and Zach New, who pleaded guilty to separate federal charges for bilking public school funds for their private school, recently received plea deals in the state welfare fraud case. The deals ensured that they would receive no additional time beyond their federal sentence for their crimes in the welfare case. They agreed to cooperate with the prosecution.

None of the other civil suit defendants have faced criminal charges, which come with a higher burden of proof than civil charges.

Federal authorities have also not brought any criminal charges in the welfare scandal.

The U.S. Attorneys Office and FBI have declined to comment, but recent plea deals indicate their investigation is ongoing.

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

Former President Bill Clinton speaks at Jackson’s William Winter Memorial

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rssfeeds.clarionledger.com – Mississippi Clarion Ledger – 2022-05-03 18:29:24

Virtually every important Southern political figure from the past 40 years made their way into the Two Mississippi Museums in Downtown Jackson on Tuesday to celebrate the lives of former Gov. William Winter and First Lady Elise Winter.

Former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, former Mississippi  Mike Moore, former Governors Phil Bryant and Ronnie Musgrove and national Democratic…

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