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Mississippi Today CEO Apologizes For Saying Phil Bryant ‘Embezzled’ Welfare Funds

a screencap of Mary Margaret White speaking on a stage while sitting in a chair
Mississippi Today CEO Mary Margaret White apologized on May 17, 2023, for claiming former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant “embezzled” millions in welfare dollars to a national journalism conference audience. She said she “misspoke” and called her remark “inappropriate,” clarifying that officials have not accused him of wrongdoing. She is seen here at the Feb. 22, 2023, media forum where she made the remark. Screencap courtesy Knight Forum

Mississippi Today CEO Mary Margaret White apologized today for claiming that former Gov. Phil Bryant “embezzled” welfare funds as part of the State’s $77-million welfare scandal in a note posted on the publication’s website Wednesday. The apology comes after the former governor threatened to sue the news outlet over their CEO’s remarks.

“I misspoke at a recent media conference regarding the accusations against former Governor Phil Bryant in the $77 million welfare scandal. He has not been charged with any crime,” she wrote. “My remark was inappropriate, and I sincerely apologize.”

During a Feb. 22, 2023, media panel at the Knight Forum in Miami, Fla., White told an audience of journalists that Mississippi Today was “the newsroom that broke the story about $77 million welfare funds … 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.”

The nonprofit newsroom won a Pulitzer Prize for reporter Anna Wolfe’s local-news coverage of the welfare scandal on May 8. After White’s remarks resurfaced in several reports around that time, Bryant’s lawyer Billy Quin sent Mississippi Today a notice of suit on May 10 accusing her of defamation and demanding retractions and apologies within 10 days.

A close up of Phil Bryant, looking up
Former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant demanded apologies and retractions from Mississippi Today in a May 10, 2023, letter. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

The letter also demanded apologies from Wolfe and Mississippi Today Editor Adam Ganucheau for later claiming the publication had never claimed Bryant was guilty; neither has apologized.

“Mississippi Today has published at least 29 times over the course of its coverage of the welfare scandal, including multiple times in ‘The Backchannel’ investigative series, that Gov. Bryant has not been charged with any crime,” White wrote in her apology note on Wednesday. “My mistake was unintentional and an inaccurate representation of the facts. This statement will be shared across Mississippi Today’s platforms, including our website, social media, newsletter, mobile app and text service. I have requested that the video of my remark be retracted with this apology.”

When asked for comment on the apology Wednesday, Bryant’s attorney told the Mississippi Free Press he would review the apology with his client and that they had not made a decision on whether or not to proceed with a lawsuit. Officials have not accused Bryant of a crime, and he is not a defendant in the State’s civil lawsuit designed to claw back millions in misspent Temporary Assistance For Needy Families welfare funds.

Read the Mississippi Free Press’ May 11 report on Phil Bryant’s defamation letter to Mississippi Today for more details.

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