Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves still has not returned campaign donations from Nancy New and Zach New, two of the criminal defendants in Mississippi’s $77-million welfare-fraud scandal, as Associated Press reporter Emily Wagster Pettus reported on May 30. His campaign says it will hold onto the funds until litigation surrounding the scandal wraps up.
After State Auditor Shad White and Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens broke the news of the welfare scandal and announced the first six arrests in February 2020, the governor vowed to return $8,500 in campaign donations he had received from the indicted mother-and-son duo.
The News, whose nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center funneled tens of millions in Temporary Assistance For Needy Families welfare funds to illegal causes, have since pleaded guilty to multiple charges. Public campaign-finance filings show that, between 2017 and 2019, Nancy New donated $2,500 and Zach New donated $6,000 to Reeves’ campaign. Nancy New also donated $2,000 to Reeves’ 2019 Democratic opponent, Jim Hood, during that period. In May 2020, Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith donated $2,500 she received from the News to the Mississippi Food Network.
On Feb. 6, 2020, Reeves vowed that “anything they gave to the campaign” would go to “a separate, untouched bank account” while officials continued investigating the scandal and that the funds “will be there waiting to return to the taxpayers and help the people it was intended for.”
So far, those funds remain in the Reeves campaign’s bank account. When WJTV asked Reeves on May 26, 2023, why he had reused old footage of himself visiting Nancy New’s private school for a new campaign ad, his campaign did not directly answer the question but reiterated that the News’ donations would “be donated to a worthy cause at the ultimate conclusion of the legal proceedings.” (Later, on June 1, he told reporters the footage was in the video because “I guess whoever did the editing decided that it was a good picture”).
‘It’s Really Just What Feels Appropriate’
But why wait for the legal proceedings, which could last years longer, to conclude before returning the funds?
Parker Briden, who serves as senior adviser to the governor’s re-election campaign, told the Mississippi Free Press on June 15 that the funds remain set aside while various criminal cases proceed along with the State’s civil case that demands repayment from dozens of people or entities that the State alleges received misspent TANF funds.
“Money has been set aside in the account, and he can either donate to a worthy cause or even help a very small amount with restitution to the government—if possible and appropriate—when all this gets resolved,” Briden said.
He noted that the $8,500 Reeves received from the News is “an incredibly small amount,” both when it comes to the tens of millions in misspent funds and when it comes to the governor’s campaign, which has millions in its coffers and raised over $660,000 in May alone.
“So it’s really just what feels appropriate, and he figured letting the State lawsuits play out and then taking action would be wise,” Briden said.
The Mississippi Democratic Party has criticized the governor for not returning the funds, with their @TateFiles Twitter account pointing to it as evidence that “Mississippians can’t trust a single thing he says” in a June 5 tweet.
Funds Could Be Clawed Back, Campaign Says
On June 4, the conservative Magnolia Tribune’s Russ Latino, who is also an attorney, argued in an opinion article that the “smart move is to hang onto the contribution until there is a resolution of the case” because otherwise any funds “could ultimately be clawed back by order of the court.”
Briden said that point was essentially correct, and that while no law requires the governor to wait until the legal proceedings are completed, “technically there is a very remote chance that the judge goes looking for all the places that the money ended up and we could help make restitution.”
“Not because Tate Reeves did something wrong, but because the donors did,” the governor’s adviser said. “And so in that case, you would hate to give it to a charity and then have to have the government claw it back. That’s to the heart of Russ’s point, and while it’s not very likely, it’s just easier to wait. The money is in a separate account and won’t be used in this campaign year or at all until the litigation wraps.”