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Gov. Reeves at Neshoba Fair: Fired Attorney Probing Welfare Fraud Was ‘Chasing A Political Angle’

Gov. Tate Reeves dressed in blue and tan speaks to a circle of reporters outside
Attorney Brad Pigott was “too focused on the political side of things” as he probed the misspending of millions in welfare funds that should have gone to the neediest Mississippians, Gov. Tate Reeves told reporters at the Neshoba County Fair on July 28, 2022. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Before the State fired him from leading the civil probe into Mississippi’s sprawling welfare-fraud case, attorney Brad Pigott was too “focused on the political side of things,” Republican Gov. Tate Reeves told reporters at the Neshoba County Fair on Thursday.

The scandal involves more than $77 million in Temporary Assistance For Needy Families Funds that never made it to the poor. Instead, former Mississippi State Department of Human Services Director John Davis, working in conjunction with the operators of nonprofits and private schools, allegedly funneled the money into pet projects or into the pockets of wealthy celebrities—including retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre.

On July 22, Pigott told Mississippi Today reporter Anna Wolfe that he believed political actors had him fired because he was “trying to get to the truth” about how $5 million of the TANF money was used to build a volleyball stadium at the University of Southern Mississippi. Pigott, whom Democratic President Bill Clinton once appointed to serve as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, said he is sure the state “can find a loyal Republican lawyer to do the work.”

In a statement after Pigott’s termination, current MDHS Director Bob Anderson said that Pigott had “made a solid start at moving the litigation along” but had since “made decisions about the litigation and filed pleadings without any prior dialogue with officials at MDHS.” 

“Although USM Athletic Foundation is not yet a party in this case, Brad Pigott issued an extensive subpoena to that entity without any prior discussion of the matter with MDHS,” said Anderson, whom Reeves appointed in 2020.

On July 23, Mississippi Today reported emails that show Pigott had sent a draft copy of the subpoena to MDHS’ general counsel and to the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office. Gov. Reeves’ office said in a statement that he “has worked closely with DHS throughout our efforts to recover fraudulent spending” and that “included discussions about the decision not to extend Brad Pigott’s contract.”

Pigott: ‘That Guess By The Governor Is Not Accurate’

At the Neshoba County Fair, Reeves also claimed that “there are outlets that have just made stuff up about why he was not renewed,” Y’all Politics reported. The governor also said the state does not “need a lawyer that focused on trying to be a confidential informant or a source for a left-wing blog,” apparently referring to Mississippi Today.

Asked about the governor’s remark, Pigott offered the Mississippi Free Press a one-sentence reply: “That guess by the governor is not accurate.”

Attorney Brad Pigott said the State fired him from handling the Mississippi Department of Human Services’ civil litigation case on July 22, 2022, after he issued a subpoena to the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation because he was “trying to get to the truth” about $5 million in TANF welfare funds that went to build a volleyball stadium. Photo by Ashton Pittman

Mississippi Today has not disclosed the sources of leaked text messages and other related documentation it has published, including whether anyone associated with defendants or the prosecution provided the information or why. 

(Editor’s note: Pigott has previously donated to the nonprofit organization that publishes the Mississippi Free Press, which does not influence the newsroom’s news coverage and choices.)

‘The Wrong Person To Represent The Taxpayers’

At the Neshoba County Fair yesterday, Reeves accused Pigott of pursuing a political agenda and seeking media attention in the wake of his firing.

“The way in which the attorney has acted since his contract was not renewed has proven to a lot of people why he is the absolutely wrong person to represent the state,” WLBT reported the governor saying. “He is the wrong person to represent the taxpayers because he is much more interested in chasing a political angle than he is in focusing on doing what’s best for the state. … He seemed much more interested in getting his name in print, and hopefully bigger and bigger print than any Mississippi stories. He wants to go national.”

After Pigott’s firing, an attorney for defendant Nancy New issued a subpoena for Bryant to turn over documents related to the volleyball stadium, saying that he had “no confidence” that the state would “pursue the evidence wherever it leads” and vowed to “find the truth, even if we have to drag it kicking and screaming into the light.”

a photo of a brick and mortar building with the word "Wellness Center" above several columns on the front
The State misspent $5 million in Temporary Assistance For Needy Families welfare money to help fund the construction a new wellness center and volleyball stadium at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, seen in this 2017 pre-rendering. Image courtesy USM

Nancy New ran the nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center when it received the TANF funds and directed them to various projects. That included sending $5 million to the USM Athletic Foundation, whose board she sat on, to fund the volleyball stadium. She and her son, Zach New, previously pled guilty to multiple state charges, including bribery and wire fraud as part of a plea agreement with state prosecutors (The News face separate federal charges over allegedly using $2 million in public-education funds for a private school; the State plea deal does not affect the federal case). Though federal TANF block grants allow states broad discretion over their spending, they cannot be used for “brick and mortar” construction projects under state law.

In his plea agreement on April 22, 2022, the younger New said that, in July 2017, he “acted with” his mother, former Mississippi Department of Human Services Director John Davis “and others, at their direction, to disguise the USM construction project as a ‘lease’ as a means of circumventing the limited purpose grant’s strict prohibition against ‘brick and mortar’ construction projects in violation of Miss. Code Ann. 97-7-10.”

During his time as governor, Bryant had close ties to Nancy New, and he celebrated the launch of Families First For Mississippi, an MCEC offshoot, with her in 2016. Prosecutors have not accused the former governor of wrongdoing in the ongoing investigation.

In April, Wolfe obtained from an unnamed source and then reported on a 2018 text message in which Brett Favre allegedly told an acquaintance, Jake VanLandingham, that Nancy New “has strong connections and gave me 5 million for Vball facility via grant money.” VanLandingham is the founder of a pharmaceutical startup called Prevacus that Favre had invested in. Bryant and Favre sought to bring the company to Mississippi, and the State says Prevacus received $2.1 million in TANF funds as part of the MDHS scheme. Prosecutors have not accused Favre, Prevacus or VanLandingham of any criminal wrongdoing.

Auditor: ‘Firing Pigott Is A Mistake’

Mississippi State Auditor Shad White, who first entered office as a Bryant appointee, began his investigation of MDHS and the News after then-Gov. Bryant turned over information he had received about alleged misspending in July 2019. The auditor provided information to state and federal prosecutors, and Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens arrested Davis, the News and three others in February 2020. Davis has pleaded not guilty to multiple state charges in the welfare scandal but faces years in prison.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, right, is the target of a subpoena seeking communications he had regarding the use of welfare funds in the construction of a $5-million volleyball stadium at the University of Southern Mississippi that retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre, left, wanted. Neither Favre nor Bryant has been accused of a crime. Photo Tate Reeves/Twitter

Auditor White, who is a Republican, criticized the decision on MDHS on July 23, saying that “firing Pigott is a mistake.”

“From the beginning of this case, I said having a bipartisan team look at this case is important,” the auditor tweeted. “That’s one of the many reasons I gave our findings to the DA of Hinds Co, who’s a Democrat. I’ve also, of course, given everything to the FBI. Pigott worked well with my office, communicating regularly with us about the status of the case and how we could share information. 

When reporters asked Reeves about the auditor’s remarks, the governor said he “can’t worry too much about what the state auditor said,” WLBT reported.

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