Former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant is threatening to sue news outlet Mississippi Today after its CEO claimed publicly to a national gathering of journalists and news leaders that her organization’s reporting had demonstrated that he “embezzled” millions in welfare dollars as part of a massive scandal involving the misuse of Temporary Assistance For Needy Families funds.
“We’re the newsroom that broke the story about $77 million welfare funds, intended for the poorest people in the poorest state in the nation, being embezzled by a former governor and his bureaucratic cronies and used on pet projects like a state-of-the-art volleyball stadium at Brett Favre’s alma mater,” Mississippi Today CEO Mary Margaret White told an audience during a Feb. 22, 2023, media panel at the Knight Forum in Miami, Fla.
No federal or state investigators have accused Bryant of any crime, including embezzlement, and no public reporting thus far has shown that the former governor directed welfare funds toward illegal purposes. Mississippi Today also did not break the overall story of the $77 million TANF scandal, though reporter Anna Wolfe has reported first on various facets of the scandal since the state auditor and Hinds County district attorney went public about the scandal and arrests on Feb. 5, 2020.
The former Republican governor’s attorney, Billy Quin, cited White’s remarks as he sent a notice of suit on Wednesday that demanded retractions and apologies within 10 days. Mississippi law requires a notice of suit before suing a news publication for defamation, as well as allowing 10 days for retractions before a lawsuit is filed. The complainant can, however, still file a lawsuit after retractions and begin the discovery process after the 10 days.
Bryant’s attorney addressed the letter to Mississippi Today Editor-in-Chief Adam Ganucheau, CEO Mary Margaret White and Wolfe. It alleges that White “defamed former-Governor Bryant” with her remarks at the Knight Foundation and that the reporter and editor later “falsely claim(ed) that Mississippi Today personnel had never stated that former-Governor Phil Bryant committed a crime.”
Ganucheau shared a statement Wednesday night with the Mississippi Free Press from Mississippi Today attorney Henry Laird of Wise Carter Child & Caraway P.A.
“We have received the demand for retraction for Gov. Bryant’s attorney. We’re reviewing it carefully so that we can reply to that demand as quickly as possible,” Laird said in the prepared statement.
After Mississippi State Auditor Shad White and Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens broke the news of the TANF scandal as they announced arrests in February 2020, Wolfe has followed up with a series of stories that revealed conversations between Bryant and some players involved in or connected to the scandal, mostly centered in her 2022 “Backchannel” series.
Wolfe’s series included stories about retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre’s efforts to get then-Gov. Bryant’s help with a concussion drug he had invested in that the South Mississippi native and a partner hoped to get to market, as well as a volleyball stadium he wanted to be built at his alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi.
The since-indicted former Mississippi Department of Human Services Director John Davis and Nancy New, a nonprofit operator whose organization controlled millions in welfare funds, directed funding to both projects.
Public statements show that much of Wolfe’s work centered around a large leak of communications related to the TANF scandal from a long-time confidential source, whose identity has not gone public.
During White’s remarks at the Knight Forum in February, she said that “it was not until 2022 when a source that Anna had worked for years leaked a trove of private communications, text messages, that really revealed the extent of the misspending.” State-funded audits had publicly pegged the misspending at $77 million or more by then, but Wolfe’s stories often centered on whether Bryant had been involved in or directed the misuse of TANF funds for those and other projects.
No Evidence Bryant Pushed For Illegal TANF Use
Since Anna Wolfe’s Backchannel series began, many of the texts she initially reported after that 2022 source leak along with hundreds of additional texts have become public as part of ongoing litigation in the State of Mississippi’s efforts in civil court to recoup millions in TANF funds from dozens of defendants. Phil Bryant is not among the defendants, and the state auditor credits him as the whistleblower who turned over information in 2019 that began the wide-ranging investigation into the Mississippi Department of Human Services.
The public release of the text exchanges in court filings offered both new information as well as provided additional context to some of the snippets Wolfe had reported previously, such as one on Dec. 27, 2018, in which Bryant told Brett Favre and Prevacus founder Jake VanLandingham that he would “open a hole.” The full communications suggest Bryant was referring to connecting them with potential investors and individuals with Federal Food & Drug Administration connections like former Sen. Rick Santorum—not to moving welfare funds toward the project.
Texts now publicly available, which the Mississippi Free Press has reported extensively on, show that both in the case of the volleyball stadium and the case of the concussion drug company Prevacus, Bryant did work to connect Favre with powerful, wealthy individuals and private donors who could help with the projects.
Publicly available texts show that the former governor allowed Nancy New to host a fundraiser at the governor’s mansion to raise private money to support the USM volleyball project. The texts even show that Bryant worked to connect Favre and his Prevacus partner with the Trump White House as they sought funding and FDA approval for the concussion drug. But none of Bryant’s texts with Favre or anyone else mentions using welfare funds for the projects.
The texts make clear that Bryant was not present for the Jan. 2, 2019, meeting at Favre’s home that included VanLandingham, John Davis, Nancy New, her son Zach New and others. During that meeting, state investigators would later allege, Nancy New agreed to begin investing in Prevacus and would do so using $1.7 million in TANF funds. Favre and VanLandingham have since denied knowing that any of the money came from welfare funds.
Bryant’s texts show that Vanlandingham told him the next day that they had “a great meeting with Nancy New and John Davis” and were “excited to be working together,” but included no details about what that would entail nor any mention of welfare funds. Bryant simply responded, “Very good.”
In April 2022, Bryant told Wolfe in an interview that he did not introduce Prevacus to Nancy New. Since-revealed text messages have confirmed that. Texts the Mississippi Department of Human Services released in March show that Favre connected VanLandingham with New. On Dec. 29, 2018, VanLandingham wrote to Favre saying he was “going to venture out on a limb and say of all the times you’ve helped me the key contact that gets us over the top will end up being Nancy New.”
Favre agreed, saying he “almost sent you a message this morning that said if any one comes through it will be her!!” VanLandingham replied that New was “meeting with John Davis” and asked if Favre knew him. “Yep. He is just like her,” the retired quarterback responded.
An email revealed in court filings last year shows that USM Athletic Director Jon Gilbert introduced Favre to Nancy New on July 16, 2017, as he sought help building a volleyball facility at his alma mater. Then, on July 24, 2017, Favre met with New, USM Athletic staff and Davis at the University of Southern Mississippi, where the Department of Human Services director agreed to spend $4 million in what would turn out to be TANF funds on the volleyball stadium (Favre would later say he did not know welfare funds were involved).
Bryant was not at that meeting, and the available texts between him and Favre show that they only discussed efforts “to get sponsors, donations etc” for the project.
Some publicly available text messages suggest Favre could have been aware of the possible use of federal grant money, including one from December 2018 in which he told VanLandingham that he believed it was possible Nancy New “and John Davis would use federal grant money for Prevacus.” Favre never specifically mentions welfare funds or TANF funds in the available texts, however, and has denied knowing Davis or New directed federal welfare funds to him or his projects. Officials have not accused Favre of a crime, though he is a target of the State of Mississippi’s civil lawsuit.
‘I Am Too Old For Federal Prison’
None of the known and reported texts indicates that Phil Bryant knew John Davis and Nancy New were using welfare funds on the projects until sometime after he turned over information about possible misspending at the Department of Human Services to the state auditor in June 2019. By that time, New and Davis had already directed millions in TANF funds toward Prevacus and the volleyball stadium. Bryant fired Davis in early July 2019, throttling the flow of funds to New’s nonprofit, the Mississippi Community Education Center.
In a text on July 22, 2019, Bryant asked a staff attorney to “check with Nancy New and see what the contract with Southern Miss is all about,” explaining that “Brett is asking for info on the proposed funding.” In a later exchange with Favre on July 28, 2019, in which the retired quarterback asked about obtaining more funds for USM projects, Bryant warned that “Nancy has some limited control over federal funds in the form of Grants for Children and adults in the Low Income Community” and that “improper use could result in violations of Federal Law.”
Later on Sept. 4, 2019, Bryant told Favre that he was willing to help him in his efforts to get more funding for USM, but that “we have to follow the law” because “I am to (sic) old for federal prison.” Then in texts with his staff attorney on Sept. 6, 2019, Bryant wrote that “Nancy is worrying” because “she know(s) what they were doing was wrong.”
On Dec. 18, 2019, Bryant texted New asking if MCEC had received new funding from the Department of Human Services.
“Yes, we did. … ‘Someone’ was definitely pulling for us behind the scenes,” New wrote. “Thank you.” Bryant replied with a smiley face. By the end of the month, though, the governor would order interim MDHS Director Chris Freeze, the former special agent in charge of the Mississippi Federal Bureau of Investigations he hired after firing Davis, to cut off all funds to her nonprofit.
“The governor can send smiley faces back, but within two weeks he said don’t fund her and don’t fund Christi Webb at the Family Resource Center,” Freeze told the Mississippi Free Press in September 2022.
The texts also show that, after Bryant left office and investigators arrested New, Davis and others in February 2020, the former governor sent a text to Favre’s Prevacus partner Jake VanLandingham telling him he was “unaware your company had ever received any TANIF (sic) funds.” VanLandingham had repeatedly offered Bryant stock in Prevacus while he was still governor, but Bryant had told him he could not consider those offers until after leaving office.
Those discussions about accepting stock did not proceed, however. VanLandingham told Bryant he “too was unaware” the money his company received had come from TANF funds, but the former Republican governor told him that he (Bryant) could “have no further contact” with Prevacus after the revelations.
Officials have not accused VanLandingham of a crime, though he is named in the State’s civil lawsuit.
‘To Gaslight and Deceive the Public’
Last year, New’s nonprofit organization issued a subpoena to Phil Bryant for texts and emails related to the welfare scandal as part of her defense in the civil suit (like Davis, she has separately pleaded guilty to state and federal charges, but has not yet served time or repaid stolen money). Three Mississippi news organizations (including this one, the Daily Journal and Mississippi Today) joined together in a March filing urging the former governor to release the communications as well to further public transparency.
Bryant complied with the subpoena and also published the texts on a website, bryanttexts.com, on May 4, but his lawyers noted on the site that they had been unable to find some relevant texts in his phone. The missing texts included leaked ones Wolfe had previously reported on, such as ones she reported showing that Bryant asked Davis to fund a Starkville program that helps children with dyslexia learn to read and another in Jackson that serves adults and children with intellectual disabilities.
Other apparently missing texts include ones Wolfe reported in which Bryant asked Davis for help for a “troubled” nephew. The Mississippi Free Press has not been able to review or verify those previously reported text conversations.
On May 8, The Pulitzer Prize committee awarded Wolfe and Mississippi Today its local reporting award for her 2022 series on the welfare scandal, “The Backchannel.” The Pulitzer Prize committee’s announcement stated that her reporting “revealed how a former Mississippi governor used his office to steer millions of state welfare dollars to benefit his family and friends, including NFL quarterback Brett Favre.”
So far, public evidence does not prove that Bryant “steered” welfare funds to Favre for any illicit purposes, though, and no prosecutor has accused him of doing so. The former governor has repeatedly denied all accusations of wrongdoing, including in a video announcing the release of texts in his possession on May 4 in which he said he “did nothing wrong” and “wasn’t aware of the wrongdoings of others.”
“When I received evidence that suggested people appeared to be misappropriating funds, I immediately reported that to the agency whose job it is to investigate these matters,” he said in the May 4 video. “It’s been a long and difficult year watching as decades of my public service is dragged through the mud and hoping it doesn’t affect those closest to me.”
The former governor’s video also predicted that his “text messages will be manipulated through a coordinated effort from a billionaire-driven media outlet” in a probable reference to Mississippi Today founder and executive chair Andy Lack—the controversial ex-NBC News chief who faced a barrage of criticism for his handling of sexual assault allegations against Matt Lauer and who Ronan Farrow accused of killing stories about Harvey Weinstein.
The notice of suit that Bryant’s attorneys sent to Mississippi Today on Wednesday noted that the Encyclopedia of Mississippi Law says “the elements of embezzlement” under Mississippi’s embezzlement statute require an individual to be guilty of the “unlawful conversion for personal use property that comes into his or her hands by virtue of his or her office or employment.”
“Former-Governor Bryant did not convert or embezzle ‘welfare funds’ and Mississippi Today’s ‘newsroom’ did not br[eak] the story’ about Bryant converting or embezzling welfare funds. White’s statement to the contrary is false,” the letter says.
Mississippi law requires public officials and public figures to demonstrate that a defendant acted with “actual malice,” which The Mississippi Law of Torts defines as making a statement “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”
“White did not have three months ago, nor does she currently have, any factual basis supporting her statement that former-Governor Bryant embezzled welfare funds. White was, in fact, aware that her statement was false when she made it,” Bryant’s notice of suit to Mississippi Today says.
“No reporter at Mississippi Today or any other publication has ever reported that former-Governor Bryant has embezzled funds. Former Governor-Bryant is not a party to a criminal proceeding and he has never been notified that he is the subject to a criminal investigation. Former-Governor Bryant’s not a party to a civil action. White has no proof to support her salacious and slanderous statement and the reason for this lack of evidence is apparent—there is none.”
Bryant’s lawyer also cited remarks Ganucheau and Wolfe made hours earlier yesterday during the Wednesday morning edition of Mississippi Today’s “The Other Side” podcast. At one point, Quin wrote, Wolfe said she did not “think that we’ve overtly … painted it like we were convicting these people” and that “it’s not our job to assign guilt as it relates to a crime.” In the same podcast, Ganucheau said his newsroom had “been very careful not to assign legal guilt to anybody” and that Mississippi Today has “been careful not to say he’s guilty of a crime.”
Bryant’s notice of suit called both statements “demonstrably false.”
“Ganucheau and Wolfe knew when they recorded the podcast episode at issue that White had accused former-Governor Bryant of engaging in criminal activity,” the letter says. “Instead of admitting such had occurred and retracting the statement, Ganucheau and Wolfe pretended White had never defamed Bryant. Their actions are evidence of a poorly executed conspiracy to gaslight and deceive the public, and to allow the continued defamation of former-Governor Bryant to persist.”
‘We Follow And Report The Story Wherever It Leads’
In Wednesday’s letter, Phil Bryant’s attorney also aimed other remarks Adam Ganucheau made during the podcast in which he said “we have not had to issue any retraction or correction on anything Backchannel-related,” calling the editor’s claim “false and misleading.”
In September 2022, the pro-Republican Y’all Politics blog, now absorbed into the Magnolia Tribune with a new editor, published documents revealing that a special assistant attorney general for Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood’s office named Stephanie Ganucheau had signed off on the contract that New and Davis allegedly used to funnel TANF funds toward the USM volleyball stadium.
Stephanie Ganucheau, who has not been accused of wrongdoing, is Adam Ganucheau’s mother. She had never been named in any Mississippi Today stories up to that point, and the publication had not yet disclosed her connection to the editor of the Backchannel series.
After the Mississippi Free Press asked Adam Ganucheau for comment after the blog’s report last year, he sent a statement and then published it as an editor’s note on Sept. 28, 2022, acknowledging that his mother “had signed off on the language of a lease agreement to construct a University of Southern Mississippi volleyball stadium—a project now a focus of the state’s ongoing welfare scandal.”
Though Adam Ganucheau had been the editor overseeing Wolfe’s coverage of the TANF scandal since 2020, he said in the note that he did not know about his mother’s role in the approval of the volleyball contract until eight days before publicly acknowledging it. He said the publication would add disclosures to related articles starting the day he found out when approached by Y’all Politics.
“That political actors are willing to leverage the bureaucratic role my own mother played in state government to try to discredit Mississippi Today’s reporting is notable. But it should not distract readers from the real story: Powerful Mississippians appear to have used the state government system to steer millions away from our neediest residents into their own pockets and the pockets of their wealthy friends,” Adam Ganucheau said in the statement and editor’s note at the time. “We will follow and report the story wherever it leads us, just as we always have.”
In the letter to Mississippi Today Wednesday, Bryant attorney Billy Quin criticized the Mississippi Today editor for the way he handled his mother’s role in approving the contract that Davis and New would use to steer TANF funds toward the volleyball stadium.
“Ganucheau’s ‘note’ goes on to downplay the scope of his mother’s involvement and authority regarding the project, characterizing her role as ‘bureaucratic,’” the May 10 note of suit says. “Ganucheau’s claim of ignorance strains credibility and his characterization of his mother’s role is intentionally misleading. If it were not for other press outlets exposing Stephanie Ganucheau’s involvement, Mississippi Today would not have issued its belated, and woefully inadequate, disclosure.”
Yesterday’s notice alleges that White’s statements qualify as “slander per se,” which it defines as “words so clearly defamatory that no resort to other facts or circumstances is necessary for the ordinary person to understand injury to the victim’s good name.”
“White’s statement at the February 2023 Knight Foundation media forum crossed the line separating innuendo and speculation from outright falsehood,” the letter says. “The subsequent statements made by Ganucheau and Wolfe are demonstrably false and are calculated to gaslight and deceive the public.
“Former-Governor Bryant demands an immediate public correction of all false and misleading statements made by Mississippi Today personnel, a public apology for having made these false and misleading statements, and an absolute and total retraction of the statements.”
Update: On May 17, 2023, Mississippi Today CEO Mary Margaret White published an apology to Gov. Bryant on the publication’s website. You can read the Mississippi Free Press’ story on the apology here.