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

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

Three former state auditors say they would have recused themselves or limited their involvement in the investigation into Mississippi’s welfare fraud scandal to avoid perceptions of conflict of interest due to current auditor Shad White’s close relationship with former Gov. Phil Bryant.

White and his office identified the misspending and possible of tens of millions of dollars in federal money meant to help the state’s poor. But Bryant’s responsibility in directly supervising his welfare department director and the fact that some of the taxpayer money flowed to people and programs favored by the former governor are notably missing from his extensive audit report. 

White also faced questions early on — and criticism from the U.S. Attorney’s Office — as to why he didn’t promptly bring in federal authorities, who have massive investigative resources, particularly since the malfeasance involved federal tax dollars. 

The spotlight on White has grown more intense in the wake of Mississippi Today’s “The Backchannel” investigation, which showed Bryant using private texts to influence his welfare director and try to broker a deal with a pharmaceutical startup that enticed him with stock in the company. 

Bryant has since acknowledged that the content of his messages “doesn’t look good,” but while the auditor’s office has possessed the records for over two years, it concealed them from the public and has not made any indication it has further investigated the matter.

White’s relationship with Bryant goes back more than a decade. He served as policy director when Bryant was lieutenant governor and was his gubernatorial campaign manager in 2015. Bryant appointed White as state auditor, a job that has been a launching pad for runs to higher office, and supported him in his subsequent election.

Those connections have helped cast doubt over the independence and rigor of the state welfare investigation led by White. 

“The rule that I lived by was if there is any question whatsoever, don’t do it,” said Pete Johnson, who served as state auditor from 1988-1992, and ran unsuccessfully for governor, losing to Kirk Fordice in the Republican primary in 1991. Johnson said under similar circumstances, if he had such connections to someone potentially involved, he would have recused himself or limited his role in the investigation.

“You’re not only jeopardizing your integrity but the integrity of the purpose you’re pursuing … Those facts raise the question of whether or not it passes the smell test,” Johnson said. “And when those facts are looming out there, you’ve got to back off and ask will my involvement jeopardize the integrity of the investigation … I think (White) is a man of high integrity, but you asked me personally what I would do and that’s it.”

Former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus served as state auditor from 1984 to 1988. He worked closely with federal authorities in the “Operation Pretense” investigation and prosecution of widespread county government corruption across Mississippi. Mabus said that given White’s ties to Bryant, he should have handed off his lead role in investigating to someone else.

“Look, if you’re going to give the taxpayers confidence that investigations are being done impartially and objectively, even if this one is being done that way, it’s never going to look that way because of their closeness, and nobody’s going to believe that punches weren’t pulled,” Mabus said.

“… I guess a similar situation would have been if I ever learned something about (former Gov.) William Winter, whom I worked for as governor and a little bit on a campaign and I was his legal counsel,” Mabus said. “William Winter is the very last person who would ever do anything like that, but if I had come across evidence, I would have removed myself. Especially if I wasn’t going to take strong action on it, I would turn it over to somebody else.”

Steve Patterson was state auditor from 1992 to 1996, when he resigned after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of using a false affidavit to buy a car tag. In 2009 he was sentenced to two years in federal prison for his role in a judicial bribery case.

Patterson said that were he in White’s position, “I would hope that I would have recused myself or brought the attorney general in to do the investigation.”

“Having said that, it’s a timing thing,” Patterson said. “You get those complaints that come in, and it’s what did you know and when did you know it. Knowing what we know now, clearly he should have recused himself and should be recusing himself now.”

Former Auditor Stacey Pickering, whom Bryant replaced with White, declined comment.

White as auditor has burnished a reputation as a hard-charging defender of state tax dollars, and was credited with unmasking a massive scheme in the 2019 welfare scandal. But some holes in the audit have since emerged, especially relating to Bryant’s involvement behind the scenes.

The Mississippi Today investigation revealed that the former governor assisted a company called Prevacus, which improperly received welfare money, and he was poised to receive stock in the company until White’s office made arrests and announced its investigation.

READ MORE: State Auditor Shad White discusses welfare investigation, former Gov. Phil Bryant

The text messages between Bryant, the owner of Prevacus and retired NFL star Brett Favre have been in the possession of the auditor’s office for more than two years. They show the two men telling Bryant the company had received public funds, and that the governor intended to make his own business deal with Prevacus after he left office. But White did not reveal that storyline to the public.

Instead, White has credited Bryant as the “whistle blower” who prompted his investigation, and said that it was Bryant’s welfare director’s responsibility to know the law and refuse any improper directives from the governor.

Questions about if and when White’s office alerted other authorities to the 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.

White and numerous other officials have declined comment on the case for months citing a gag order from a state judge.

But in an October 2021 interview with Mississippi Today — before the judge strengthened the gag order in the case to further restrict White — the auditor said he had not seen instances of Bryant directing his welfare chief to spend federal money on specific programs. Mississippi Today later obtained communications between the governor and principal players in the scandal discussing the allocation of financial aid.

White also said then that it was the welfare director’s duty to reject improper requests from the governor, not the governor’s responsibility to know the rules and laws.

An early oddity in the auditor’s probe came when White went to the District Attorney’s Office — notoriously understaffed and suffering huge backlogs of cases — after he launched an eight-month investigation without notifying federal authorities.

Then-Southern District U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst in early 2020 issued a release noting, “We in the United States Attorney’s Office and the FBI only learned … from media reports about the indictments and arrests, at the same time the general public did.”

“While we commend the reported actions, 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.”

White at the time said that his office moved swiftly and without notifying or involving federal authorities so as to halt the scheme before any more money was misspent or stolen. White has pointed to slow action by federal authorities as justification for his agency investigating and making the arrests. More than two years later, federal authorities have not brought any charges related to the welfare scandal.

White did face questions about Bryant, given that the former governor’s director of human services and close friends of Bryant were among those arrested and indicted, and the malfeasance appeared to involve programs or companies Bryant had championed. But shortly after the arrests, White said that then-Gov. Bryant was actually the whistleblower who prompted the auditor’s office investigation.

Federal criminal investigations are notoriously slow, but also notoriously thorough. Their vast undercover, wiretap and other resources allow the FBI and DOJ to cast wide nets over criminal conspiracies.

Hurst, in his statement at the time of the arrests, noted, “Investigating and prosecuting cases of this magnitude and complexity is routinely what the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Offices do here in Mississippi and around the country.”

Hurst, a Trump administration appointee who left office in early 2021, declined a recent request for comment on the case.

White has said that after his initial eight-month investigation and arrests, he has involved federal authorities and turned over everything his investigators have.

Nearly three years after the massive scandal involving at least $77 million in misspent or stolen federal welfare dollars, the state Department of Human Services on Monday announced a civil attempting to claw back $24 million from famous former athletes and pro wrestlers — including Bryant’s friend Brett Favre and Ted “The Million Dollar Man” DiBiase – among others.

It’s unclear where any continuing federal or state investigations stand at this point. No further arrests have been made since White’s office initially arrested six people in February of 2020 — Bryant’s head of DHS and another agency employee, former pro wrestler Brett DiBiase, a nonprofit and private school owner and her son and an accountant that worked for them. Four out of six have since pleaded guilty to state charges.

In a statement about the DHS lawsuit White said: “We will continue to work alongside our federal partners — who have been given access to all our evidence for more than two years — to make sure the case is fully investigated.”

Bryant’s appointment of his former campaign manager and policy director White as state auditor in 2018 was something of a surprise to most political observers. Bryant said at the time that he wanted someone with “independence” who did not have numerous political relationships and ties to the government officials and institutions he would be auditing.

At White’s swearing in as auditor after he appointed him, Bryant said: “When I was auditor, I used to enjoy saying, ‘In God we trust. All others, we audit.’ Shad, you’re welcome to use that.”

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

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

Nancy and Zach New plead guilty to bribery, fraud charges

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Nancy and Zach New plead guilty to bribery and fraud in state welfare case

Nancy New, a once prominent private school and nonprofit founder, and her son Zach New pleaded guilty to state criminal charges in Mississippi’s sprawling welfare scandal on Friday.

The 69-year-old former educator is pleading guilty to four counts of bribing a public official, two counts of fraud against the government, five counts of wire fraud and racketeering. Her deal comes with a total maximum sentence of 99 years, with 25 to serve.

But state prosecutors have recommended that the state judge wait to sentence Nancy New until she receives a sentence in her separate federal case — which is expected to produce a sentence of no more than ten years — and then sentence her to equal or lesser time to run concurrently with the federal sentence.

In other words, state prosecutors recommend Nancy New serve her entire sentence in federal prison and serve no additional time for the state charges above what she serves in the federal case. She pleaded guilty in the federal case earlier this week to one count of money laundering, which carries a maximum sentence of ten years.

Zach New, the 39-year-old vice president of his mother’s nonprofit, pleaded guilty to the same charges, minus racketeering. His charges come with a total maximum sentence of 75 years, with 17 to serve. State prosecutors have offered him the same deal to serve only the number of years he receives in the separate federal case. He pleaded guilty in the federal case to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, which comes with a maximum sentence of five years.

Both Nancy and Zach New have agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and testify against their co-defendants. Both state and federal criminal investigations are ongoing and could result in charges against additional people, sources close to the probes say.

Under the state plea deal, the News will serve whatever sentence they receive in federal prison, instead of Mississippi’s state prisons with notoriously barbaric conditions.

The News, who could also pay more than $3.6 million in restitution as part of the plea deal, are changing their plea earlier than he was required since their state trial was not set to take place for at least three months. Their petitions filed Friday include new details about their role in the bribery and of funds from the Mississippi Department of Human Services, the state’s safety net agency.

In these cases, the News separately scammed both the Mississippi Department of Human Services out of welfare funds and the Mississippi Department of Education out of public education dollars. The News ran the nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center, which received tens of millions of federal grant funds as a subgrantee of the Mississippi Department of Human during the administration of then-welfare director John Davis.

Three of the wire fraud charges relate to financial transfers they made from the nonprofit to the private, for-profit school district called New Learning Resources, then to a drug company in Florida called Prevacus, as well as transfers they made directly from the nonprofit to Prevacus.

Text messages published earlier this month in Mississippi Today’s “The Backchannel” investigation reveal that right before the News agreed to funnel welfare money to Prevacus, the company’s owner and former NFL quarterback Brett Favre offered former Gov. Phil Bryant company stock in exchange for help Bryant provided when he was governor. Bryant appeared to agree by text to accept that offer after he left office, Mississippi Today reported. Favre even referenced in texts to Bryant the public funding that the company was receiving from the state and Nancy New. Bryant responded positively.

The News were accused also of funneling embezzled funds to an affiliate of Prevacus, called PreSolMD, but those transfers were not included in the counts to which the News recently pleaded guilty. The companies allegedly received $2.15 million in stolen federal grant funds.

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

In 2017, the News also made an “off the books” purchase of a black GMC Yukon for Davis, the state welfare agency director, and two of his senior executives at their request to incentivize them to keep agency funds flowing to the nonprofit. Davis is also facing charges, to which he’s pleaded not guilty, related to the scheme.

The News also hired WWE wrestler Brett DiBiase on a salary of $250,000 and Davis’ nephew Austin Smith, knowing that they weren’t qualified for the jobs, and gave Davis unrestricted access to the nonprofit’s credit card.

They also defrauded the state by transferring $1.2 million to Victory Sports Foundation, run by local former football player Paul Lacoste, knowing the foundation was not eligible for the funds and by paying $4 million to build a volleyball stadium, a payment he and others disguised as a “lease.”

Another count of wire fraud relates to the construction of a virtual reality center in downtown Jackson, which the News also helped disguise as a lease.

The nonprofit also at one point transmitted $3,000 to Davis, which he distributed to attendees of “Law of 16,” a professional development presentation conducted by retired WWE wrestler Ted “Teddy” DiBiase Jr., who himself collected more than $3 million in welfare funds.

Nancy New’s racketeering charge, which is not included on Zach New’s guilty plea, relates to her and Davis transferring money from her nonprofit to a rehab facility in California, where Brett DiBiase was receiving treatment.

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

Phil Bryant turned to welfare officials to rescue troubled nephew

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Family first: Gov. Phil Bryant turned to welfare officials to rescue troubled nephew

Noah McRae was the kind of kid who, if you said the sky is blue, would argue it is red until he was ready to fight.

Growing up in the Jackson suburbs, McRae had problems with authority and his temper. His parents divorced. He bounced from school to school, and he eventually started using drugs.

But he had at least one thing going for him that other young men didn’t: His great-uncle is Phil Bryant, Mississippi’s governor from 2012 to 2020.

And the governor had two things: A friend named Nancy New and a welfare department with millions in flexible cash and free rein to hire whomever it wanted. Both came in handy when McRae needed some help.

Bryant’s subordinates and friends helped McRae secure a spot at an exclusive school, a job after he was expelled and specialized supervision.

And according to records recently obtained by Mississippi Today, federal investigators have been told New even paid for McRae to go to rehab.

An early assist came when McRae was having difficulty in school. His family eventually linked up with Nancy New’s private New Summit School in Jackson. New was a campaign contributor to Phil Bryant and worked closely with his wife, Deborah, the sister of McRae’s grandmother.

Bryant had previously praised New’s private school district. He said it was an example of what should look like.

Mississippi’s current governor Tate Reeves even used the Jackson school as a film location for his campaign advertisement, which aired in 2019 while New was under state investigation for fraud and related to the massive contracts her nonprofit received from the welfare department under Bryant’s administration.

Agents from the state auditor’s office arrested New, her son Zach New and Bryant’s former welfare director John Davis in early 2020 in what officials have called the largest public embezzlement scheme in state history. Each of them pleaded not guilty and still await trial while the governor, despite his involvement with the players in the case, appears to have coasted.

But at the time, New was well-known in political circles. Prominent state figures touted her school for its work in educating children with intellectual disabilities and for taking students with behavioral problems.

McRae had been diagnosed with ADD, anxiety and a visual processing disorder called Irlen Syndrome, according to court documents, so his family felt fortunate that he landed a spot at the school.

“The governor pulled strings to get him in there,” said Darin Cooper, McRae’s stepfather.

Because of Noah McRae’s relationship to the governor, Cooper said the family paid a discounted tuition at New Summit.

It didn’t work out as hoped, but McRae still managed to get a safety net.

“He got expelled from there,” Cooper said, and then the school “turned around and hired him as a groundskeeper.”

The New Summit School in Jackson, formerly run by Nancy New and her son Zach New. Both were arrested in 2020 on charges they allegedly stole $4 million in Mississippi welfare dollars.

Things were not quite what they seemed at the school, either. Federal prosecutors say that for four years the News filed fraudulent claims to illegally collect millions in public school dollars typically reserved for kids who have mental health disorders and need hospitalization. Nancy and Zach New also pleaded not guilty and still await trial in that separate federal case.

Cooper said the family believes McRae was one of the students whose names the News used to draw down the funds.

“We had a lot of hope in that school,” Cooper said. “It was real big for the family when he got admitted to that school. They were promising to fix everything, you know, and turn him around.”

McRae never made it past 10th grade. Shortly after in April of 2017, in neighboring Madison arrested the 18-year-old McRae after he and his friends broke into several vehicles, stealing guns and other items.

McRae pleaded guilty in June of 2017 to three counts of auto burglary, according to the court file obtained by Mississippi Today. McRae agreed to be a sheriff’s trusty, which kept him out of the penitentiary. But after just shy of a year, officials terminated him from the program for cause. He sat in jail for five months until his sentencing. By then, he’d been locked up for about a year-and-a-half.

Madison County Circuit Court Judge Steve Ratcliff sentenced McRae to seven years in prison, four years suspended, meaning he only had to serve three years. With credit for the 18 months he had already been incarcerated, McRae had served half of his sentence and was parole eligible. The Mississippi Department of Corrections released him about a month later.

A few weeks after leaving prison, New’s nonprofit began paying the 19-year-old small, sporadic payments, records obtained by Mississippi Today show. He was paid under a welfare-funded program called Families First for Mississippi, according to the ledger of purchases.

While New’s nonprofit claimed to provide reentry services to people leaving the correctional system, New stressed to Mississippi Today in 2018 that Families First did not provide direct assistance to clients.

So it’s not clear what McRae may have been doing in exchange for the payments, but it wasn’t long until an exchange of text messages indicated that something was amiss with the young man. State employed welfare officials were spending work hours trying to keep an eye on him.

Eventually, Gov. Bryant would take concerns about McRae to his appointed welfare director John Davis, according to text messages Mississippi Today obtained and have reprinted here as they appear without correction.

“The boy needs help quickly or he is going to fall badly. Thanks for all your have done,” Bryant said in a text to Davis on April 1, 2019.

The request brought the combined resources and interests of the state’s welfare department and New’s nonprofit together for another attempt to help McRae. It’s unclear how far that help went.

Former Gov. Phil Bryant

“I’m sure I told John at some point, ‘This is a tragedy and we’re worried about his health,’ and John would have said, ‘Let me help you with him,’” Bryant said in a recent interview with Mississippi Today when asked about the connection between McRae and the welfare agency.

According to the texts, Bryant was specifically asking Davis for information about how to get his great-nephew into a treatment program, but an individual with close ties to the welfare scandal says McRae received much more than a referral.

In a transcript from a 2021 interview with federal investigators, the person told agents that New said she paid for McRae to go to rehab.

Bryant told Mississippi Today in a recent interview that he did not recall New paying for his great-nephew to go to rehab, but that he felt it might be an appropriate use of her resources.

“I don’t know all the guidelines, but for an agency that works with the Department of Human Services and I don’t remember her doing it, but saying, ‘We think we can pay for a rehab of this very fragile indigent child. We think that’s the right thing to do,’ would not have shocked me,” Bryant said. “I would not have said, ‘Whoa, wait a minute, let me go read the code books and make sure we can do all of that.’”

Investigators did not immediately ask follow-up questions about the alleged payment, moving on to other topics, according to the transcript. The interviewee said they didn’t know which facility McRae went to, but that he was in treatment around the same time that New and Davis allegedly sent professional wrestler Brett DiBiase to a luxury rehab clinic on the taxpayer’s dime. That began in February 2019. DiBiase pleaded guilty to defrauding the state – collecting money for work he didn’t do while he was in rehab – in December 2020.

New had a strong motivation to keep Bryant and Davis happy. Under the two men’s leadership, the Mississippi Department of Human Services had started funneling tens of millions from the federal welfare program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to New’s nonprofit through a no-bid contract.

The idea was for her nonprofit, Mississippi Community Education Center, to run a state-sanctioned initiative called Families First for Mississippi, which Gov. Bryant frequently touted as part of his plan to help poor people get off welfare. Bryant has not been accused of misconduct and has denied any wrongdoing.

Drug rehab payments have played a key role in the welfare scandal.

It has been widely reported that Families First paid the $160,000 tab for retired wrestler Brett DiBiase to stay four months at the Rise in Malibu, Calif., which bills itself as a luxury rehab center with “private en suite rooms, majestic ocean views, world-class treatment and luxurious accommodations.” Prosecutors say the payments were made using welfare funds.

John Davis, former director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services

Brett DiBiase is the son of Ted DiBiase Sr., who WWE fans know as “The Million Dollar Man.” The dad also received welfare funding in his role as a Christian minister. Brett DiBiase was one of six people arrested in the welfare fraud case, and he’s since flipped to aid the prosecution.

Jackson attorney Scott Gilbert, who represented McRae in his 2017 car burglary case, currently represents the other son, Ted “Teddy” DiBiase Jr., another character in the scandal who received more than $3 million in federal funding to make motivational presentations to welfare department staffers and other state employees. Gilbert said his office does not comment on their client representation.

In the indictment against Davis, prosecutors allege the welfare director conspired with New to use the taxpayer money her nonprofit received to pay for Brett DiBiase’s drug treatment in Malibu.

States are allowed to use some Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funding to pay for substance abuse treatment for needy, qualified residents, a progressive policy focused on meeting the actual needs of families.

But in Families First’s many million-dollar promotional campaigns, brochures and thousands of dollars worth of spots on radio stations, the program did not advertise that families could receive drug treatment through the program.

In fact, Bryant previously signed and publicly lauded a new law that requires applicants and recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to take drug screenings and tests or face rejection from the program. The policy became a significant barrier to eligibility, even for people who don’t abuse substances, because applicants must find transportation to the testing clinic.

These days, Bryant is a spokesman for local rehab facility Mercy House Adult & Teen Challenge, part of a national Christian program that has received scrutiny recently for imposing harsh discipline and forcing residents into unpaid labor.

Throughout January and February of 2019, Mississippi Community Education Center paid Noah McRae several small, sporadic payments totaling about $1,500, ledgers obtained by Mississippi Today show. Officials have told Mississippi Today that these ledgers likely contain errors and omissions, especially since nonprofit officials had been transferring funds between several different bank accounts.

Nancy New, founder of Mississippi Community Education Center and owner of New Summit School

Under the Families First program, it was common for employees to appear as if they were working for the Mississippi Department of Human Services but receive their paycheck from the nonprofit, whose expenses were shielded from public view.

By March, McRae had stopped receiving funds from Families First, according to the ledger, but Davis and his communications director Lynne Myers were still discussing McRae as if he were a rogue agency employee.

“I’m needing your direction on how you would like me to handle Noah,” Myers messaged Davis in early March. “He has not been at work since last Wednesday … He hasn’t shown up at all this week and I can’t get him on his cell. How would you like me to proceed?”

It’s unclear what position McRae may have held at the nonprofit or welfare department or what qualifications he possessed for the job. Current MDHS leadership says there is no record of McRae’s employment at the agency.

In the weeks after Myers reached out, Davis sent McRae several text messages asking the governor’s great-nephew to meet with him or call him. It’s unclear why the director would have had a direct line to a Families First client or employee, let alone one at McRae’s level, as that kind of exchange was not common.

When asked why welfare officials would have been texting with McRae, Bryant responded, “because he was my great-nephew.”

Finally, Nancy New chimed in. In late March 2019, New messaged Davis and Myers, “I have an update on Noah McRae.”

“Is he okay?” Myers responded.

No texts on the group chat follow.

Less than a week later, Gov. Bryant himself messaged Davis about his great-nephew.

“Would you have a number for David at Region 8. Trying to get Noah into a treatment program,” Bryant wrote on April 1. “The boy needs help quickly or he is going to fall badly. Thanks for all your have done. He has to do some of this own his own but David can tell is what he thinks is best for him.”

David Van is the director for Region 8, the Community Mental Health Center in the Jackson-metro area. The Community Mental Health Centers are a series of quasi-public-private clinics and treatment facilities that accept payment on a sliding scale depending on what a person can afford.

Van told Mississippi Today it was not unusual for the governor to call him, asking for help guiding constituents to services, but that he did not remember ever talking to John Davis or triaging someone named Noah McRae.

Davis and New are bound by gag orders which prevent them from speaking to the media about their cases. Their attorneys declined to answer questions for this series. Myers would not respond to Mississippi Today’s calls to offer further context about her involvement with McRae. Myers has not faced any charges, but agents from the auditor’s office did interview her early on in their investigation about why she moved merchandise purchased with taxpayer money from state property to the nonprofit after the state placed Davis on administrative leave in June 2019, according to a recording of the interview.

Myers took over the communications division in the fall of 2018 right after her predecessor, Paul Nelson, became the subject of a complaint for failing to release public records in a timely manner. The agency was soundproofing itself, forcing all agency communication with reporters to go through the attorney general’s office. It also enacted a media policy that reporters must submit all questions for the agency in writing, which it would often not answer.

Davis and New’s involvement with McRae isn’t the only example of the welfare officials helping a colleague deal with a family member in addiction.

Texts show the assistant attorney general assigned to MDHS sought help from Davis and New for his coworker’s son, who was at the time checking into Pine Grove, an addiction treatment facility in Hattiesburg. The son worked for MDHS’s child support contractor before he passed away in 2021. “I will reach out to Dr. New,” the assistant attorney wrote in late June of 2019, after Bryant kicked the director out of office but before Davis announced his retirement publicly. “Again, thanks for all you have done.”

In general, Davis and New ran a government program rampant with nepotism, texts show.

The welfare-funded Families First program also hired Myers’ husband, Kevin Myers, former director of the Department of Public Safety’s administrative operations, as a community liaison. He pulled a salary of at least $86,000 from New’s nonprofit, according to its ledger. Text messages show that Davis also secured a job at Families First for their daughter Mason Myers, who was paid roughly $600 a week, the ledger shows.

“You have blessed our family greatly John, and I just needed to tell you you’re awesome and we are so grateful,” Lynne Myers texted Davis in mid-June of 2019, about a week before he would face his first polygraph test in connection with the audit of his department.

Myers previously served as the special projects coordinator for Bryant’s office. On LinkedIn, she described herself as a network account executive for TeleSouth Communications, also known as Supertalk radio, beginning in 2017. She was director of communications for MDHS in 2018 and 2019. SuperTalk radio is a hyper-conservative talk radio station that state agencies pay hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars each year in exchange for advertising and, in some cases, the luxury of soft-ball interviews for state bureaucrats.

New’s nonprofit funneled nearly $330,000 in MDHS funds to the station, a 2020 audit report shows.

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.

“Everybody tells me how great Logan is doing,” Davis once texted the CEO. “I’m so proud of him.”

A couple months before Davis abruptly retired, Kim Dillon invited the welfare director out to dinner at Tico’s Steakhouse in Ridgeland.

“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!” Dillon texted Davis in early May of 2019.

While the good ole boy system in Mississippi’s government provided McRae opportunities and second-chances not enjoyed by most, the alleged scheme also exploited McRae.

Prosecutors say the News converted at least some of the public school funds they allegedly bilked in the name of students like McRae to their own personal use.

“From what we understand with the private school, they were receiving a bunch of state or federal funds and pocketing them,” Cooper, McRae’s stepdad, said. “None of them ever went to Noah. No help ever went to Noah from those people. They were just using his name as a shell to collect government funds.”

Despite gaining a spot at New’s private school, a job on the campus and Families First, and supervision from powerful bureaucrats, McRae didn’t achieve a better outcome.

After McRae’s time under the wing of the welfare department and Families First, he went back to breaking into cars in late 2019 and wound up convicted of conspiracy to commit auto burglary in neighboring Rankin County.

In February 2021, a couple months after the birth of his daughter, McRae pleaded guilty and a judge sentenced him to five years in prison, according to MDOC records.

He is currently incarcerated at Leake County Correctional Facility.

This is Part 5 in Mississippi Today’s series “The Backchannel,” which examines former Gov. Phil Bryant’s role in the running of his welfare department during what officials have called the largest public embezzlement scheme in state history.

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

NAACP chief asks AG to investigate Gov. Phil Bryant

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NAACP asks U.S. Attorney General to investigate former Gov. Phil Bryant after Mississippi Today series

Mississippi Today’s “The Backchannel” series, which examines former Gov. Phil Bryant’s involvement in what officials have called the largest public embezzlement scheme in state history, is renewing calls for a federal investigation.

NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on April 7, three days after the beginning of Mississippi Today’s series, asking for him to prosecute the people responsible for stealing federal funds meant to serve the nation’s poorest residents.

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

“We decided to move forward to request the Department of Justice to do a thorough investigation after the investigative reporting from Mississippi Today,” Johnson said Friday. “It is obvious others were involved. This is perhaps the largest federal fraud situation that we have seen in the state of Mississippi and maybe one of the largest in the country. The fact that the former governor could be involved and others, it requires a thorough investigation by the federal authorities to ensure that taxpayers in the state of Mississippi and across the country are made whole.”

In 2020, the State Auditor’s Office released a report that questioned $94 million in federal grant spending from the Mississippi Department of Human Services. While the office arrested six people in February of 2020 related to the alleged of $4 million, no one else involved in the sprawling scheme has faced charges.

Mississippi Today’s series uncovered never-bef0re-published private conversations Bryant had with retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre and the owner of Prevacus, the company that received $2.15 million in allegedly stolen welfare funds from the state. Favre and Prevacus owner Jake Vanlandingham offered Bryant stock in the company in for exchange the help he gave them during his time in office. Bryant agreed in text messages to accept the offer two days after he left office — but the arrests by the state auditor, a Bryant appointee and former campaign manager, derailed the arrangement.

None of these men have been accused of wrongdoing related to the deal.

“What was most striking about the Mississippi Today article is the fact that the governor knew or should have known” that the company was receiving funding from the state, Johnson told Mississippi Today. “And it appears from firsthand accounts from his emails and text messages that he was steering decisions as it relates to TANF funds, which obviously raises a lot of questions and should require a federal investigation into his involvement.”

“If, in fact, that was the case,” Johnson added, “he and others should be held accountable for their involvement.”

Much more has yet to be revealed about the widespread misspending of at least $77 million in federal public assistance funds.

“The audit report noted that its findings and all related information had been referred to the U.S. Department of Justice,” Johnson wrote in his letter. “However, nearly two years later, despite the overwhelming documentary evidence of fraud, forgery, and abuse in this matter, DOJ has not yet launched a criminal investigation.”

At the time of the 2020 arrests, State Auditor Shad White said his office had turned over all information to federal investigators. White justified his office making the initial arrests — including the former Bryant-appointed welfare director John Davis and nonprofit founder Nancy New — in order to quickly stop the flow of funds from the welfare agency to the contractors who were allegedly misspending the money.

Then-U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst in Jackson said the local FBI and his office were not aware of the welfare agency investigation until the arrests, but that “we stand ready to put the substantial experience and expertise of our offices and the entire U.S. Department of Justice to work to help our colleagues bring fraudsters to justice and stamp out public corruption,” the Clarion Ledger reported.

“Not only is it imperative that DOJ take prompt and aggressive action to protect the Mississippi residents who were and continue to be harmed by the wrongful actions of state officials,” Johnson wrote, “failure to investigate may lead to the impression that DOJ is continuing the previous administration’s pattern of looking the other way when laws are broken by white state officials, especially when the wrongdoing disproportionately
harms minorities.”

READ MORE: Mississippi Today investigation exposes new evidence of Phil Bryant’s role in welfare scandal

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

Phil Bryant’s star-powered selfies didn’t Save the Children

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Phil Bryant’s star-powered selfies and slick brochures didn’t Save the Children

As Jennifer Garner spoke about growing up and her family’s narrow escape from poverty in West Virginia, a C-SPAN camera panned over to then-Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant. 

From across the room, Bryant held up his cellphone with both arms, capturing video of the “13 Going on 30” actress on his device.

Garner and Bryant were together at a panel on early childhood education at the 2017 National Governors Association meeting in Washington.

As many politicians do, Bryant liked to leverage his proximity to celebrities like country music singers, star athletes and even a reality TV personality to advance his agenda. 

When it was his turn to speak, Bryant began by name-checking a low-income grandmother Garner had recently met in the Mississippi Delta town of Mound Bayou. Tracy Price’s grandchildren attended the nearby elementary school where Garner read to students during her visit.

“I hope Tracy Price is doing good,” Bryant said. “We sent Tracy a selfie yesterday so Jennifer could tell them she’s gone to the top of the government in Mississippi to make sure Tracy gets help.”

Garner beamed, nodding her head. Bryant’s comment suggested that Garner – the kind of “elite Hollywood liberal” that conservatives often mock – had some pull with the governor, that someone with her stardom wielded influence in the Magnolia State.

But like many low-income parents who were systematically denied government benefits during Bryant’s administration, Price did not, in fact, “get help.” 

“Jennifer came to my house,” Price, 62, told Mississippi Today when the publication found her in January. “But I have gotten nothing from anybody since then. I have not received a thing. … Nothing. I had my grandkids here and I was losing my house and everything. They never reached out to me.”

When Garner arrived at her home, Price added, “I had no idea who she was.”

Actress Jennifer Garner (left) visited Tracy Price (second from left), a grandmother living in the Mississippi Delta town of Mound Bayou, in 2016 as part of her work with humanitarian nonprofit Save the Children. They posed with another Save the Children
Then-Gov. Phil Bryant said Garner “went to the top of the government in Mississippi to make sure” the grandmother received help, but none ever came.

A few months after Bryant and Garner’s exchange in Washington, Bryant’s office arranged for the Mississippi Department of Human Services to start awarding welfare money to the international nonprofit that Garner represented in the meeting. The organization would later give Bryant a shiny award.

Save the Children, a century-old and well-regarded humanitarian organization, has received about $2 million in funding from Mississippi’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families grant since then.

TANF, the subject of a sprawling fraud investigation in Mississippi, is an anti-poverty program best known for providing direct cash assistance to poor families.

When Save the Children came on the welfare scene, the state was denying more than 98% of poor families applying for the cash benefit while investigators say officials were misspending and embezzling millions from the program. On Bryant’s watch, more than $70 million that the welfare agency passed through two private nonprofits was misspent, according to independent auditors.

Unlike the more conspicuous welfare contractors, Save the Children received its welfare funding directly from the welfare agency for legitimate literacy, after-school and summer programs. Auditors did not find any of its funding was improper. 

But a deeper look at Save the Children’s connection to the welfare program reveals how Bryant used the group to project an image that his administration was implementing innovative approaches to battling chronic poverty and nationally recognized early childhood development, even though the plan never got off the ground. Mississippi remains near the bottom of most national rankings dealing with early childhood development and well-being.

Price said she was initially turned off by Save the Children’s involvement in Mississippi, since the international group is best known for using private donations to aid and educate children in war-torn countries and after natural disasters.

“My whole thing was I kept asking, ‘Why do we have to save the world?’” Price told Mississippi Today. “We can start saving stuff right here. We’ve got a need here. … Charity starts at home.”

But less prominently, Save the Children also operates as a government contractor across the United States.

Save the Children says it has served people in Mississippi for more than 80 years, and former officials and advocates told Mississippi Today the organization really elevated its state presence in 2005 during the aftermath of Hurricane . It most notably raised private money to build a new child care center on the Coast. The group also took over the federally funded Head Start Center in Sunflower in 2014 after it won the federal grant over the local organization that ran it before.

Ever since, Save the Children has received funding from the Mississippi Department of Education to provide literacy, nutrition and fitness programming in Mississippi’s notoriously underfunded public school system. Reports show it also runs a home-visiting program to coach parents on the best early childhood practices. Save the Children says it matches the public funding it gets with private dollars, almost 2-to-1 in Mississippi, to boost its state programs.

In 2020, Save the Children reported that 91% of 3-year-olds who spent at least one year in its “Early Steps” program had an average or above average vocabulary.

“I have never met a parent that didn’t want to give their child the best possible start in life, but many that just don’t know how. So that’s why these programs are so important,” said Yolanda Minor, Save the Children’s Mississippi State Director. “… We go in and assess the parent, build their self-confidence, provide those age-appropriate activities.”

Current Gov. Tate Reeves awarded the charity more than $460,000 from the Governor’s Emergency Education Response (GEER) pandemic relief funds in 2021. Since current MDHS director Bob Anderson took over and promised to clean up the agency, Save the Children is one of the few welfare grantees introduced during the scandal who is still receiving TANF grants through a newly implemented competitive bid process. In its 2020 application for TANF funding, Save the Children said it employs 160 people in Mississippi and serves 7,529 children and parents.

Save the Children fits as a TANF recipient because in addition to the “welfare check,” states may use the federal dollars for a variety of services including child care, workforce training, transportation, parenting classes and aid to children at risk of abuse and neglect.

Mississippi Today examined Save the Children’s introduction into the welfare landscape, and like all subgrantees at the time, the charity did not have to win a competitive bid to receive funding. They just had to have the governor’s ear.

Emails show Bryant and his education policy adviser Laurie Smith had a hand in channeling welfare funds to Save the Children for the first time in 2017.

Smith, originally from Arizona, was a public school teacher who eventually served as director of Mississippi Building Blocks, an early education and child care center training program launched in 2008 by former Netscape CEO and philanthropist Jim Barksdale’s reading institute.* 

Gov. Bryant’s publicly stated policy preferences – “school choice” and resistance to fully-funding – were opposite those Barksdale endorsed. Yet the governor eventually tapped Smith as his education policy adviser in 2012. 

Smith, who led both the State Early Childhood Advisory Council and the State Workforce Investment Board for Bryant, had great control and decision-making power in her position in the governor’s cabinet.

They seemed to take a special interest in keeping tax dollars flowing to Save the Children. 

“The Governor, through Laurie’s advice, helped us obtain some TANF funding the past year or so and have been able to use those funds to sustain programs as legislative appropriations have decreased over time,” a lobbyist for Save the Children wrote in an email to former MDHS director Davis in November of 2018. 

Save the Children had been receiving a $150,000 direct allocation within the Legislature’s annual education appropriations bill, but in 2018, it was reduced to $50,000.

Trevor Moe, Save the Children’s Managing Director of Partnership Development, told Mississippi Today that it is not unusual for the organization to press leaders to find the funding so it can keep providing services to kids in need. While Save the Children does refer families to other resources, they keep a narrow focus on kids.

“Our approach to dealing with governors, elected officials, is … we’re very zealous about advocating for rural kids – unabashedly so,” he said.

Price said Save the Children selected her as a parent advocate in 2016 because of her involvement at one of the schools it served. 

Years later, during a particularly difficult time in her life near the beginning of the pandemic, Price sent an email to the organization.

“I would love to do more but I am struggling to hold my life together,” Price wrote. “I have nobody to help me … Jen said that she would never forget me yet I knew that we would never meet again. Who helps us in our own country? … I am rich at heart but struggling to make ends meet. I have never reached out to anyone. Can your world wide organization help me?”

Price said she never received a response.

Garner has served as an ambassador for Save the Children for more than a decade, with a focus on early childhood development, an area of special concern in Mississippi. Science shows that the first five years of a child’s life is the most critical for brain development. Experts say that supporting development in a child’s earliest years, even before pre-K, is an effective way of interrupting generational poverty. 

Today, more than one in four Mississippi children live in poverty, the highest rate in the nation. For Black children, the poverty rate is 43%. 

There are several agencies that operate public programs for the youngest Mississippians: the health department has an early intervention program; provides health insurance and case management; some public schools offer pre-K through what are called Early Learning Collaboratives; and local community organizations operate federally funded Head Start programs for low-income families.

But the state’s private child care industry, which does not receive a direct allocation in state or federal budgets, is an often overlooked avenue for helping the tens of thousands of babies and young kids it impacts on a daily basis.

The Mississippi Department of Human Services, which saw massive misspending and allegations during the Bryant administration, is in charge of the federal fund that props up these private child care centers in low-income areas.

The fund, the Child Care Development Fund, provides vouchers to working class parents so they can afford the child care that allows them to keep a job. The agency’s child care division also grants some of the money to centers that qualify so they can make improvements in accordance with a state plan and quality rating system the division develops.

During his administration, Bryant acknowledged the importance of early education and claimed Mississippi was making progress in that arena. He singled out Save the Children as a key player in making it happen.

At that 2017 governor’s meeting, he held up an orange and fuschia booklet with a wordy title in white letters across the front: “Family Based Unified and Integrated Early Childhood System.”

“The great thing about Save the Children is, we have a statewide plan,” he said, pamphlet in hand. “We worked three years on this, for early childhood learning in the state of Mississippi and this program fits exactly into this plan. It was almost as if, through fate, perhaps divine intervention, that Save the Children came to be a part of this.”

The plan included several components but the main objective was two-fold: To usher in a new child care quality rating system, replacing an old controversial policy, and to increase training opportunities in private child care centers so the employees can appropriately educate, not just supervise, the kids in their care. The less-than-novel concept mirrored the Building Blocks program Smith previously ran. They called this new training effort Early Childhood Academies, which purported to partner with Families First for Mississippi, the program that was misspending tens of millions of TANF funds.

“We’ve been creative in the funding,” Bryant said in the meeting. “We use TANF. Delta Regional Authority has been a part of this. Private funds. Wherever we can find funds, we go and do so.”

The previous quality rating system, which rated centers one through five stars and provided higher reimbursement rates to centers who scored higher, had proved unsuccessful. Fewer than half of centers participated, and advocates complained that the policy worsened racial inequity and offered few resources to actually help centers improve. A 2016 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights investigation into Mississippi’s child care voucher program found that “far too many eligible children are not serviced by the subsidy program, and that the money that should support this eligible population of children is redirected elsewhere.”

The new system was to rate centers either “standard” or “comprehensive.” Standard centers would meet minimum guidelines, plus additional training and professional development, while comprehensive centers would provide more staff coaching and conduct child assessments, among other requirements. Centers would have to rate as standard to participate in the voucher program while comprehensive centers would receive higher reimbursement rates. 

Mississippi received a federal $10.6 million Preschool Development Grant at the end of 2018 to implement the plan. 

But the idea, concocted by Laurie Smith and data scientist Mimmo Parisi of the governor-appointed State Early Childhood Advisory Council, barely materialized. The former council’s website, along with the reports and information it published at that time, was eventually wiped from the internet.

“Everybody interested in participating in the comprehensive plan was invited to a luncheon,” said Amy Berry, director of Little Saints Academy, which received $5,000 through the grant to buy a laminator among other equipment. “They served really nice food, gave us little plaques, gave us all kinds of little trinkets and stuff. They were just spending the money, in essence.”

State leadership placed the grant under the Mississippi Community College Board. The board then hired Austin Smith, the nephew of then-MDHS director John Davis, to serve as the program manager.

Austin Smith (no known relation to Laurie Smith) was also hired to develop a “coding academy” for Families First for Mississippi, the MDHS-funded program that perpetuated the welfare scandal. A forensic audit of the department showed that his employment history included restaurants, a canoe rental company and his father’s landscaping business and suggested he was not qualified to conduct this work. Austin Smith received an auditor’s office demand to repay the state almost $380,000.

His uncle, Davis, also a Bryant appointee, is currently awaiting trial in what officials have called the largest public embezzlement case in state history.

The FBI also investigated the board’s spending of the preschool grant in 2020, former Mississippi Community College Board Director Andrea Mayfield told Mississippi Today, but have not made any public allegations surrounding it.

Behind the scenes of the preschool grant, communication shows Laurie Smith was calling the shots with a particular interest in Save the Children. Mayfield, another Bryant appointee who chaired the governor’s workforce board that Laurie Smith directed, worked closely with Smith to carry out her vision.

“Hi- will you continue with save the children funding?” Laurie Smith texted Davis on June 21, 2019, just a few days before investigators would administer his first polygraph test and he would be forced out of office. “I’m going to have pdg (Preschool Development Grant) pay for some additional work.”

Mississippi Today requested all expenditure documents, invoices and receipts pertaining to the Preschool Development Grant funding. Save the Children does not appear as a direct subgrant recipient. The organization said it never received this funding.

Under the grant, the community colleges sent trainers out to participating child care centers to work with the staff and read to the children, but Berry said the training her center received was too sporadic and short lived to result in meaningful progress. Much of the money also went to private day care centers to buy equipment like printers and laptops or supplies like ink and markers. 

About $190,000 went to Mississippi Community Education Center founded by Nancy New, a key figure in Mississippi’s unraveling welfare scandal. Records show the nonprofit used most of the money to purchase commodities and equipment for child care centers. 

Overall, Mississippi spent only about 60% of the preschool funds it was awarded, the final expenditure report shows, leaving about $4.2 million unspent.

“There was nothing beyond giving child care centers furniture,” Deloris Suel, owner of Prep Company Tutorial School in Jackson, said of the grant. “That was the biggest part of it.”

Near the end of Bryant’s last term in October of 2019, then-President Donald Trump appointed Laurie Smith to lead the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau. Now, she’s a partner at Bryant’s lobbying company; her work with Building Blocks is absent from her staff profile on the firm’s website. 

Laurie Smith declined to interview for this story, but she sent the following statement: “Although I wasn’t there at the time, once the decision to not move forward with the comprehensive model was made, returning federal taxpayer dollars seems like a responsible decision.”

By the end of the grant period in early 2020, the department had still failed to designate any centers as “comprehensive,” and the rating system was soon abandoned. The state was relying on an additional $10 million federal grant it applied for in late 2019 in hopes of keeping the plan intact. Save the Children representatives said they had discussed working under this grant with state leaders, and even assisted Mississippi with its application.

In a recent interview with Mississippi Today, Bryant said that the state secured $50 million for this early childhood program – which records show is not true. Laurie Smith also told Mississippi Today in 2019 that the state would be going after a $50 million grant, but it only applied for $10 million.

The government eventually rejected Mississippi’s application and the whole operation collapsed. 

“It was a complete failure to launch,” said Debbie Ellis, owner of Greenwood child care center The Learning Tree and leader of a coalition of providers in the Mississippi Delta. “And it set us back years.”

Today, there is no child care quality rating system in Mississippi.

Yet, Bryant was still touting the defunct program as recently as December 2020. 

“When I was governor, I helped create the Family Based Unified and Integrated Early Childhood System, which connects and integrates resources and services for both parents/caregivers and their children,” Bryant said well after the grant was over and the program ceased to function. “This system was expanded as Mississippi secured a $10.6 million federal Preschool Development Grant. This grant funding is helping to strengthen the state’s early childhood systems and improve access and quality for Mississippi families with children age five and under.”

Mississippi Today informed Bryant that no centers ever received the comprehensive designation. “If you’re telling me some government program didn’t work properly, I’m not saying that they always do,” Bryant told Mississippi Today.

Bryant did characterize the program as a success because, he said, “I was told that it was.”

“Dr. (Laurie) Smith managed that and from every report I got was doing a very good job,” Bryant said.

Asked how he knew, during his administration, if reports he received about the efficacy of his programs were honest, he responded, “You don’t. It’s impossible.”

Bryant also said he didn’t know that the community college board had placed Austin Smith, who according to the forensic audit had little experience in this kind of programming, over the management of the grant or that the state failed to spend 40% of the funding.

Ellis said the early childhood development plan’s purpose was little more than to make Mississippi politicians and bureaucrats look good, “to look like they were doing something no one else had been able to do.”

“And they were not,” she said. “They actually did nothing but print beautiful brochures and tout a program throughout the nation that never launched in Mississippi.”

In October of 2019, Save the Children awarded Bryant the “Champion for Children Award” for being a leader in child advocacy.

In an email to Mississippi Today, Save the Children said Bryant’s efforts with the Early Childhood Academies made him the right candidate for one of their awards. 

The organization also praised Bryant for the reduced caseload at Child Protection Services, an agency that remains out of compliance with a federal settlement due to underfunding; reading gains ushered in after the controversial “third grade reading gate”; and the Early Learning Collaboratives, public pre-K programs set up by the Legislature in 2013.

The state most recently ranked 39th in the nation for preschool access for 4-year-olds and 42nd for state spending in early childhood education, according to the The National Institute for Early Education Research annual preschool report.

Mississippi ranked last in the nation for overall child well-being in The Casey Foundation’s 2021 KIDS COUNT report. 

But there is some hope for progress today. In 2021, the state doubled its investment in pre-K. MDHS also recently announced it is developing a new curriculum for child care centers with a $5 million grant to Mississippi State University, calling it the “first step in a strategic partnership for early childhood development.”

Back at the 2017 governor’s meeting in Washington, Garner told stories about visiting the homes of poor families and encouraging often stressed-out moms to talk, read and play with their babies. This is the cornerstone of the work Save the Children has been doing in the Mississippi Delta.

Garner described the homes as having “not an ounce of sound or joy in the place.”

“When we walk into these homes, you would be suffocated by the silence in the rooms,” she said.

Mississippi Today shared the video with Price, who had no idea that Mississippi’s governor had mentioned her in a national broadcast. She said she never received a “selfie” from the governor or Garner. 

Price also said Garner is mistaken when it comes to the Mississippi homes and families she knows. 

“Jen missed the mark. Said too much incorrect fluff that leads any reader or listeners to the wrong conclusion,” Price wrote in a text message. “We struggle to survive but proudly. There is a lot of talent here but no opportunity.”

Save the Children told Mississippi Today that Garner was not available for an interview for this story.

Price was born in Jackson but grew up and went to college in California. There, she spent 29 years working for the same telephone provider until the company abruptly laid her off in 2008. A single mom of a teenager, Price moved back to Mississippi to be with family and wound up in Bolivar County, a particularly economically ravaged part of the Delta.

Now, Price takes care of her two grandchildren, 15 and 13, while their mom finds work elsewhere.

Price said she almost lost her home a few years ago due to a squabble with the previous owners. She now owns the house, which is situated on an isolated piece of property out in the county.

But with the little income she pulls from disability payments, she’s struggled to afford upkeep. The house needs plumbing and siding repairs, but as Mississippi Today has previously reported, home rehabilitation programs for low-income families are sparse in Mississippi.

Price had to take out high interest debt that she would like to consolidate and refinance, but she said lenders have locked her out of opportunities. She said she worked to get her credit score well into the 700s, then a recent $9,000 medical bill for one of the children caused it to drop again. She started a trucking business in 2017 but said she’s been unable to get business loans to purchase the necessary equipment to keep it running. The company didn’t qualify for any of the pandemic relief, either.

“Society has suppressed me economically and reduced me to a credit score,” Price told Mississippi Today. “If you don’t know somebody, you ain’t getting nothing here.”

Price may struggle, but she said that’s what strengthens her faith and the bonds in her family.

In a picture taken with Garner at Price’s home, peeling beige paint near the ceiling is visible. So are colorful curtains, a display cabinet that held a series of Black figurines passed down to her daughter, and Price’s wide, infectious smile. 

Her home is not joyless.

“I go down to the projects, I go down to the low-income places, it’s more joy down there than I see anywhere else,” Price said. “My grandkids are happy, you know? They smile all the time, laugh. They normal; they fight and cuss at each other, too. But they got a roof over their head. They got food in their mouth. They got clothes on their back.”

“They know – beyond a shadow of a doubt – they know their grandma got them.”

*Editor’s note: Jim Barksdale is a Mississippi Today co-founder and major donor.

This is Part 4 in Mississippi Today’s series “The Backchannel,” which examines former Gov. Phil Bryant’s role in the running of his welfare department during what officials have called the largest public embezzlement scheme in state history.

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

Vandalized figure of Jesus returned, statue of Virgin Mary still missing from St. James Cemetery

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www.wxxv25.com – Ashleigh Fortenberry – 2022-03-23 17:20:27

News 25 reported an incident of vandalism and at St. James Catholic Church Cemetery in . That very same day, an important figure that was stolen was returned, but a piece is still missing.

Two weeks ago, a St. James Catholic Church parishioner reported the church cemetery was vandalized and a figure of Jesus crucified was stolen along with a new fiberglass statue of the Virgin Mary.

But a plea to the public…

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Welfare recipients get $1,000 boost during holidays

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Mississippi welfare recipients get $1,000 boost during holidays

The roughly 1,500 families receiving welfare benefits in Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation, will see a $1,000 boost just in time for the season.

Though more than 200,000 families live in poverty in Mississippi, less than 1% of them actually receive the government benefit because of strict rules around who receives cash assistance.

The monthly check is relatively low — just $260 for a family of three — so the state only spends about 5% of the $86.5 million it receives for welfare each year on cash assistance for low-income families.

The federal fund that supplies cash welfare, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), was also the target of a massive alleged theft scheme and broad mismanagement in recent years. Four people arrested in February of 2020, including the former director of Mississippi Department of Human Services, which administers the aid, still await trial in what official have called the largest public embezzlement case in state history. Two others have pleaded guilty.

The current agency director Bob Anderson says he’s improving internal controls to make sure that the agency’s funds are used to help people and not wasted.

The agency started sending out the one-time $1,000 boost to TANF recipients on Dec. 17 and the money should reach each family’s Way2Go debit card by Christmas. The additional money came from the Pandemic Emergency Assistance Fund, a $4.7 million appropriation from the federal American Rescue Plan Act authorized last March. The additional payments this month total about $1.5 million.

In a release, Mississippi Department of Human Services announced that families who become newly eligible for TANF in 2022 may be able to receive the additional $1,000 as long as funds are still available. TANF has a five-year maximum time limit.

“We are grateful for the opportunity to provide more cash assistance to needy Mississippi families,” Anderson said in a release. “We know that many families are still struggling to meet their basic needs, and this assistance will help them this holiday season.”

Anderson successfully requested legislation during the 2021 session to increase the amount of TANF payments, which hadn’t been increased in two decades and were the lowest of any state, by $90.

His agency also recently changed an internal policy that allows parents who receive TANF to keep the first $100 of their child support payments, whereas before the state would intercept the funds to pay itself back for the cash assistance it administered.

But even with the new administration, fewer and fewer Mississippians are receiving the payments as the welfare rolls have been steadily dropping for years. In 2019, the number of low-income families receiving the aid each month ranged from about 2,900 to just over 4,000. In 2021, the number was as low as 1,549.

Mississippians may apply for TANF here. People who receive notice of their eligibility but do not receive the additional payment this week should contact their local county DHS office, the department said in its release.

Gov. Tate Reeves also recently announced that all state-employed law enforcement officers would receive a one-time $1,000 bonus. The payments, funded by relief funds, are classified as hazard pay.

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

Auditor, DHS head object to gag order in welfare theft case

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Auditor, DHS head object to broad gag order in welfare theft case

by Anna Wolfe, Mississippi Today
December 21, 2021

””
Auditor Shad White and welfare director Bob Anderson filed a motion opposing a broad gag order in Mississippi’s ongoing welfare fraud case.

Judge-ordered gags in the ongoing welfare embezzlement cases have prevented defendants, attorneys and prosecutors from speaking to the media about the criminal charges for the last year or so.

But attorneys for one defendant, former Mississippi Department of Human Services Director John Davis, want officials to stop talking publicly about the embattled bureaucrat altogether.

And State Auditor Shad White and the current welfare agency director Bob Anderson aren’t having it.

”Such an order would amount to an unconstitutional prior restraint, be overly broad, and would severely interfere with Auditor White’s, Executive Director Anderson’s, and agency employees’ responsibilities as public officials,” an assistant attorney general wrote on behalf of White and Anderson Tuesday.

White and Anderson were responding to a motion filed by Davis’ attorney Chuck Mullins of Jackson law firm Coxwell & Associates last Monday.

“Both Mr. Anderson and Mr. White have repeatedly made comments about Mr. Davis, inferring matters about his guilt, but failing to report instances when the actions taken by Mr. Davis were approved by MDHS policies,” reads Mullins’ motion filed Dec. 13. “In some instances, Mr. White and Mr. Davis have made comments about Mr. Davis’s actions when those actions were approved by other people at MDHS.”

Officials have accused Davis of conspiring with nonprofit founder Nancy New to steal over $4 million in federal welfare dollars. However, the charges in his indictment are more narrowly focused on how his agency paid Brett DiBiase, an ex-wrestler who has battled drug addiction, $48,000 under a contract for opioid addiction education he did not fulfill. The indictment also alleges Davis conspired with New to use taxpayer dollars to pay for DiBiase’s four-month long stay in a luxury Malibu rehab facility. DiBiase pleaded guilty in December of 2020 and has agreed to be a state’s witness.

But the criminal indictments encompass just a sliver of an overall scheme to spend welfare money on ”increasingly absurd expenditures,” according to White, with improper payments totaling around $70 million, according to independent auditors.

Much of this misspending, and the agency procedures that led to it, have not resulted in criminal charges. Though some of the alleged purchases outlined by auditors may violate federal rules, they may not constitute a . White and Anderson argued Tuesday it is their duty to remain transparent about what transpired under the leadership of Davis, who was appointed by former Gov. Phil Bryant.

”Auditor White continues to receive information to date and has ongoing investigations into various allegations of additional wrongdoing at DHS during the tenure of the Defendant. There is a very real possibility that additional findings may be made by the Auditor’s office and that information may be required by law to be made public,” the motion reads. “Likewise, MDHS and its head, Executive Director Anderson, are dealing with significant fall-out because of the practices of the Defendant while he ran MDHS from 2016 through 2019. It may become necessary for Auditor White, Executive Director Anderson, or their employees to make public comments about these issues.”

The department also plans to file civil litigation in an attempt to recoup some of the misspent funds, which will be a public proceeding.

The latest motion asks the court to deny Davis’ motion to extend the gag order to apply broadly to White and Anderson discussing Davis’ actions.

White and Anderson argue that comments about how Davis ran the welfare agency “have nothing to do with the Defendant’s culpability” and would not influence the potential jury pool or threaten his right to a fair trial. Instead, White and Anderson say they agree to a limited gag order under which they will refrain from commenting on the criminal charges or Davis’ alleged crimes.

A hearing on Davis’ motion is currently set for Dec. 28.

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

These Mississippi organizations were asked to return DHS funds

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Mississippi welfare agency asked current subgrantees to return $1 million in safety net funds

by Anna Wolfe, Mississippi Today
December 7, 2021

Mississippi Department of Human Services Director Bob Anderson says he’s cleaning up the agency.

In the last year, his agency has demanded subgrantees to return nearly $1 million in safety net funds it says the organizations misspent or did not properly document, according to a Mississippi Today analysis of 149 letters.

According to interviews with subgrantees, the accounting issues identified in the last year have much more to do with technical clerical errors and unclear reporting expectations than with outright misspending. Many findings, even final demands, were cleared after negotiations between the parties, without funds being returned.

The agency and its partners are experiencing growing pains as officials implement stricter controls on their spending due to recent scandal and past lackadaisical monitoring at the department.

Mississippi State University, Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Mississippi, Goodwill Industries and various community action agencies — nonprofits designated to carry out federal anti-poverty programs enacted in 1964 — were among the agency partners that received the biggest demands.

Gov. Tate Reeves appointed Anderson in March of 2020, a month after the State Auditor’s Office arrested six people, including the former director John Davis, for allegedly conspiring to steal $4 million in federal funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant.

The allegations of are just one component of a larger scandal in which independent auditors hired by the agency say the state frittered away $77 million in public assistance dollars from 2016 to 2019. The nonprofit accused of the most egregious misspending and theft was Mississippi Community Education Center, founded by private school owner Nancy New.

State and nonprofit officials had said they were spending the money on programs and activities to help impoverished people, such as parenting and anger management classes, motivational training and after school programs — many of which are legal purchases but, as federal policies experts point out, are not the most effective ways to reduce poverty.

That emphasis has continued today: the state is still primarily issuing TANF subgrants for parenting initiatives and after school programs, as opposed to work supports like child care and workforce training programs.

As an example of its priorities, the first link on the public assistance agency’s website is ”business opportunities,” where private companies can go to find information about how to bid on agency contracts and subgrants. (The department is currently working on redesigning its website).

In the most recent year, from Sept. 1, 2020, to Nov. 10, 2021, the agency questioned nearly $4.5 million spent by its subgrantees — organizations it hired to administer public assistance, such as TANF grants, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food stamps, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) and the Child Care Development Fund (CCDF).

Anderson said questioning costs and demanding repayment is how the agency monitors its subgrantees, which receive around $150 million of the agency’s $1 billion in federal public assistance funding each year, past audits show.

“Under John Davis, that process existed, but when the findings were brought to him, often that was all that ever happened to it,” Anderson said in a Facebook interview on Oct. 8 following the release of the independent forensic audit on Oct. 1. “We didn’t actually send the questioned cost letters out to the subgrantees if John said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ What we’re doing now is, we’re sending those finding letters directly to subgrantees.”

Mississippi Today could not verify this statement. Mississippi Today asked the agency over several weeks to provide the number of letters sent during the Davis administration, to confirm Anderson’s statement, but department wanted the news organization to pay nearly $376 to answer the question. It said it did not keep a record of the questioned cost letters it sent which subgrantees, so it would have to manually pull every subgrantee file to determine whether they received a finding, and charge Mississippi Today the research costs of $17-an-hour for 21 hours.

Davis’ attorney Merrida Coxwell did not return calls for this story.

In many cases, the subgrantees who received initial findings letters responded to the agency with supplemental information that satisfied the agency’s questions, so the agency did not send final demands.

Final demands total over $1 million, but subgrantees still have the option to file appeals.

Mississippi State University received one of the larger demands for repayment: $56,763.68 on April 22, 2021, for money it received through TANF, and $35,043.69 on Sept. 3, 2021, for money it received through CCDF. University spokesperson Sid Salter told Mississippi Today that the welfare agency cancelled the TANF demand after the university submitted additional time sheets to justify the expenditures. As for the CCDF funding, the university has appealed the demand and will attend a hearing on Jan. 28, 2022. Mississippi State University has received MDHS grants for various programs over the last few years, such as the TK Martin Center for Technology & Disability, but the bulk of the funding has gone to the National Strategic Planning and Analysis Research Center, or “NSPARC,” which houses personal data on Mississippians, connected from several state and federal agencies.

Thirteen other organizations also received final demands over $10,000.

Mississippi Department of Human Services said the following entities owed money they received from the TANF block grant:

  • Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Mississippi ($88,461.51)
  • CompuRecycling Center Inc. ($17,635.55) (A representative said the organization paid the demand in full.)
  • Save the Children Foundation ($16,064.38) (The organization charged to its TANF grant portions of two local staffers who were doing work under the TANF contract but whose positions were not included in the grant budget, so the agency found during a routine audit that the costs were unallowable. A managing director for Save the Children, Patrick Iannone, said the organization repaid the costs and the audit was closed.)
  • Scientific Research (SR1) ($14,472.11) (Representatives from SR1 said the organization returned the funds to MDHS after learning they did not have the documentation the agency required under the grant. Executive director Tamu Green said MDHS has started offering more technical assistance to subgrantees so no surprises arise after the grant period is over.)
  • Jobs for Mississippi Graduates ($12,913.33) (Executive director Ramona Williams said she did not receive the letter until a month after it was sent and that she has requested a hearing to object to the findings. She said she also did not receive the initial letter that questioned over $150,000, which was dated Sept. 2, 2020, more than a year before the final demand. Unlike New’s nonprofit, Jobs for Mississippi Graduates was paid on a reimbursement basis, so Williams said the agency should have questioned expenses when they were submitted for monthly reimbursement, not a year after the fact. She also said the fact that monitors from MDHS have not been able to visit her organization in-person due to COVID has made the process more cumbersome.)

”We’ve been penalized and held to a standard that is just so unfair,” Williams said. “We’ve been in the trenches. We provided the requisite services that were needed. Yet I feel as if we’ve been penalized for something we didn’t do.”

The welfare agency said several community action agencies owed money they received from LIHEAP, CSBG or the federal weatherization assistance program, but many of the final demands arose from issues within the organizations’ budgets grouping certain expenditures, and many of them were cleared.

Some of those entities were:

  • Pearl River Valley Opportunity, Inc. ($210,538.58) (Executive Director Helmon Johnson said his organization has submitted more supporting documentation and “we are waiting on a response from the Monitoring Division which should clear up these outstanding cost.”)
  • Prairie Opportunity ($121,933)
  • Human Resources Agency ($121,835.5) (MDHS later administratively cleared these questioned costs, a Nov. 23, 2021 letter shows, which arose from an issue with the way the organization charged its MDHS grant for employee benefits.)
  • Civil Action Committee ($121,427.89) (Director Vanessa Gibson said the agency sent the demand in error and it eventually cleared the findings, a Sept. 2, 2021 letter shows.)
  • South Central Community Action Agency, Inc. ($11,656.83) (Director Sheletta Buckley said in an email that her organization appealed and the state eventually found the demand to be “unsubstantiated.”)
  • Northeast Mississippi Community Services ($10,006.72) (A representative from the organization said it sent paperwork justifying its purchases after receiving the initial demand, but due to turnover at the state agency, the paperwork was misplaced and a final demand letter was sent in error. A follow up letter shows MDHS cleared these costs.)

”It was just a matter of them not asking for the right documents. And once they asked for the right documents it all went away,” said Gibson, who runs Jackson County Civil Action Committee. “We have never, ever, ever had any kind of findings that looked anything close to this. We are one of their best programs and we were very distressed that this would even be an issue, because it was a nonissue.”

Goodwill Industries received a final demand on Oct. 12, 2020, for $35,941.72 it received from the SNAP work program grant.

On Oct. 8, Mississippi Today requested all questioned cost letters the agency sent from Sept. 1, 2020 to present. This request was part of an ongoing series of requests Mississippi Today has filed at the Mississippi Department of Human Services in an effort to hold the agency accountable for its spending and internal controls. For the 149 letters, Mississippi paid $161, which was mostly researching costs. Read the questioned cost letters here.

“MDHS has made significant strides in its monitoring function over the past 18 month period,” Anderson said in a written statement to Mississippi Today. ”Monitoring visits are being conducted or desk audits are being completed, questioned costs are being assessed, and subgrantees and other partners are either repaying the questioned costs or availing themselves of the administrative hearing process. That is the way monitoring is supposed to work. Questioned costs do not always translate to recouped funds, if the subgrantee or contractor can provide missing documentation or substantiate questioned costs.”

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

George County asking public’s help to identify suspects in attempted ATM theft

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www.wxxv25.com – WXXV Staff

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Sheriff’s Office is looking for these suspects in an attempted ATM .

The George County Sheriff’s Office is asking the public’s help to identify suspects in connection with an attempted theft of an ATM in Benndale.

Sheriff Keith Havard said in a press release that on Saturday about 1:45 a.m., deputies…

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