Reddit AMA recap: Inside Mississippi’s welfare scandal investigation with Anna Wolfe
Anna Wolfe — the investigative reporter behind the most in-depth coverage of the biggest public welfare embezzlement scheme in Missississippi history — answered question’s about the state’s welfare scandal and her reporting on Friday, August 5.
Click to jump to a specific question about Mississippi’s welfare scandal :
Do you know if the U.S. Attorney General’s office or Justice Department is, or will be investigating?
Are you aware of any individuals who were knowingly involved but whose names have never been made public?
Q: It seems at this point this would be best investigated by outside authorities. Do you know if the U.S. Attorney General’s office or Justice Department is, or will be investigating?
A: Nancy New’s plea agreement signals federal authorities are investigating, yes. We also know federal authorities have met with other figures in the case, such as a defendant in the civil suit.
Q: Did Phil Bryant know that you had his text messages before he sat down for the interview with you?
A: Yes, he did. It’s the only reason he agreed to the interview. He wanted to “look me in the eye,” his spokesperson said, because he had concerns about “crucifixion by innuendo.”
Q: This is an opinion question of sorts, but assuming Tate’s move was political, why would he have incentive to remove Pigott? It seems like an unforced error that just draws scrutiny on him.
A: Yes, Gov. Reeves’ comments last week illustrated how much control his office has had over the welfare department’s handling of the case. The welfare department is, of course, an executive agency under the control of the governor and run by a Reeves-appointed director. Based on Reeves’ connections to some of the defendants or potential defendants, it does raise questions about how MDHS can be an impartial lead on the case.
Q: Please tell me more about what could possibly happen to former Governor Phil Bryant. Wasn’t he supposedly getting a kick-back from it?
A: Two days after Bryant left office, the founder of Prevacus texted him and said, “Now that you’re unemployed I’d like to give you a company package for all your help …We want and need you on our team!!!”
Over his last year in office, Bryant helped Favre and Prevacus by participating in fundraisers, connecting them with an investor and making inroads with the FDA. The company also received $2 million in stolen welfare funds from Mississippi.
“Sounds good,” Bryant responded. “Where would be the best place to meet. I am now going to get on it hard…”
Bryant says he never accepted the stock, but even an attempt to receive a bribe or kickback can be considered a crime in statute. Nancy New has also alleged that Phil Bryant directed her to make the $1.1 million payment to Brett Favre.
Q: Just how involved/guilty is Brett Favre in this?
A: Brett Favre was the inspiration behind at least $8.25 million in TANF spending (volleyball, $5M, Prevacus/PreSolMD, $2.15M, himself, $1.1M). And he knew these were grant funds, his texts show.
He also said, “Don’t know if legal or not but we need to cut him in,” with reference to giving then-Gov. Phil Bryant stock in Prevacus in exchange for his help.
Q: Do you think Auditor Shad held onto the case for too long before alerting the feds?
A: Some experts we talked to noted that was strange.
Q: Do you feel cases like this embezzlement scandal make your job as an investigative journalist easier or harder? What’s the most enjoyable parts about it all for you?
Please please please keep your foot on the gas; your efforts are invaluable to those of us residents who recognize the abject corruption in this state.
A: I began reporting on TANF before this scandal broke and that was really, really hard. I knew something wasn’t right, but the agency blocked me from getting any information that would allow me to tell the stories I knew were there. Shad White’s arrests in February 2020 definitely set off a chain reaction for me. I focused my reporting on elements of the case that weren’t public (or at least public yet), like breaking stories about the USM volleyball stadium, Marcus Dupree’s horse ranch, and of course, Phil Bryant’s text messages with Brett Favre. Making my own discoveries and making connections I didn’t pick up on before is definitely one of the [most fun] parts of my job.
Q: Geoff Pender writes.., “(Tate Reeves) said criminal investigations are ongoing by the U.S. Department of Justice, FBI, Health and Human Services fraud investigators and others.”
I hate to admit it, but doesn’t Reeves have a point in using this as the defense for firing Pigott?
Why would Pigott be investigating something the Feds aren’t? WHY would the feds not be interested in the things Pigott’s interested in?
A: I don’t think anyone is arguing that the feds aren’t investigating USM. It wasn’t Pigott’s responsibility to know what the feds considered a crime or not. He was bringing a separate civil suit, which attempts to recoup the money. Some targets in the civil suit (such as Prevacus, John Davis, etc.) are still wrapped up in criminal proceedings and investigations, so it’s not as though the state is avoiding any of those folks in its current civil suit.
The $5 million the USM athletic foundation received would be an obvious target for any civil litigator because 1) it’s the biggest ticket item in the entire scheme, 2) it’s easy to prove laws were broken—a defendant has already pleaded guilty to such in state court and 3) the athletic foundation might actually have the money to pay it back, unlike many other defendants.
Q: Do you have any hope this reporting will lead to any positive changes? I only ask because I am a disenfranchised Mississippian who sees the same scenario play out time and again with minimal repercussions on the “politicians” that started the mess to begin.
A: I totally understand this sentiment and I ask myself this question a lot. Ideally, we’d see some big consequence or policy change that we could point to, to know we’re making an impact, but that’s not usually the reality. After the Backchannel published, I got a call from someone pretty high up in government that told me because of the reporting, “I feel emboldened more than ever to just tell the truth and know that that’s the right thing to do.” That stuck with me. Too many of the ills of this state are the result of secret-keeping. I can’t think of many better ways for us to have a positive impact than penetrating the culture of silence that has kept Mississippians in the dark.
Q: The welfare money is federal money. The FBI, Department of Justice and probably the IRS and US Postal Inspector should be swooping in and investigating everyone and every organization involved. Any word on that aspect?
A: You’re right. Nancy New’s plea deal struck in April signals that state and federal authorities are still investigating. And they got a pretty sweet deal to cooperate, which would lead one to believe they’re pursuing those involved at the top.
Q: Is there any chance anyone other than Nancy New and her group [is] being punished for this? When I say punished I mean actual punishment, not a slap on the wrist type fine for less than what was stolen.
A: Yes, the six people arrested in 2020 are certainly facing consequences, even if they haven’t yet been sentenced to prison time. Sentencing won’t happen until the investigation is concluded and it’s hard to predict how much time, if any, each defendant will get. I’ve heard a lot of doubt about the civil suit being fruitful: Many of the defendants likely do not have the funds to pay whatever damages they may be hit with. If it’s determined they broke the law, wage garnishment is an option, but some of them aren’t even working right now. So what I think you’re asking is, will anyone else be arrested? The feds, as is typical, have been super quiet so I can’t answer that.
Q: Does the Biden justice department actually have the appetite to take this on? We hear a lot about the FBI and the federal part of this, but previous JDs were hesitant to get involved in obvious cases.
A: That’s a good question. Biden hasn’t appointed a U.S. Attorney in Jackson, which has inevitably had an impact on the progress of the case. They have no political reason not to pursue this case to the furthest extent. But it’s also not exactly a cut-and-dried investigation. It’s a mammoth.
Q: Are you aware of any individuals who were knowingly involved but whose names have never been made public?
A: Nancy New’s response to the civil suit was fairly comprehensive.
Q: Where did you get the text messages??
A: Someday I’ll tell the story…