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Phil Bryant Threatens Libel Suit Against Mississippi Today, Demands More Retractions

Phil Bryant sitting in a white chair with a stormy painting hanging behind him
An attorney for former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant sent a notice of suit to Mississippi Today on July 24, 2023, demanding that the nonprofit newsroom apologize and retract articles that said he “squandered” millions in welfare funds and “steered” them to illegal causes. Screencap courtesy Phil Bryant

Former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant is demanding more retractions and apologies from Mississippi Today, a nonprofit newsroom that has focused much of its reporting in recent years on his role in the state’s $77-million welfare scandal that occurred while he was in office. Reporter Anna Wolfe’s Backchannel series “uncovers the depth of former Gov. Phil Bryant’s involvement within a sprawling welfare scandal,” the publication says.

The former governor’s new demand letter to the Ridgeland, Miss.-based publication’s CEO cites Mississippi Today’s claims that he “squandered” welfare funds and “steered” them to illicit causes. Neither federal nor state prosecutors have accused Bryant of a crime. The letter, known as a notice of suit, warns that Bryant is seeking punitive damages and would “likely recover attorneys’ fees and costs in a libel action against Mississippi Today.”

“The libelous statements at issue misstate the facts and misconstrue the truth. Moreover, they are integral to a malicious and concerted effort within Mississippi Today to harm former-Governor Bryant with a steady stream of outright lies, baseless speculation, and irresponsible innuendo,” the letter from Bryant’s attorney, William M. Quin, says. “Bryant demands that Mississippi Today publicly apologize for making the false and libelous accusations, that Mississippi Today publicly retract the false and libelous accusations, and that Mississippi Today publish full-and-fair corrections of the false and libelous accusations.”

The letter is addressed to Deep South Today (the umbrella nonprofit that controls Mississippi Today) and Mississippi Today CEO Mary Margaret White. Former NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack founded Mississippi Today and Deep South Today, which launched Verite News in New Orleans and plans a chain of nonprofit publications in five southern states, including Arkansas, Alabama and Tennessee.

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 those 10 days.

After an earlier demand letter from Bryant’s lawyers on May 10, Mississippi Today CEO Mary Margaret White apologized for remarks she made at a February media forum where she claimed they were “the newsroom that broke the story about $77 million welfare funds” being “embezzled by a former governor and his bureaucratic cronies.” State Auditor Shad White and Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens first revealed the theft of TANF funds and early arrests in February 2020, and Wolfe later reported follow-up stories focused largely on Bryant.

In her apology, White said she “misspoke” and acknowledged that “he has not been charged with any crime.”

a screencap of Mary Margaret White speaking on a stage while sitting in a chair
Mississippi Today CEO Mary Margaret White claimed at a Feb. 22, 2023, Knight Forum event that her organization had broken a story proving that former Gov. Phil Bryant “embezzled” millions in welfare funds. After a May 10, 2023, notice of suit, she apologized for the remarks. Screencap courtesy Knight Foundation

White also said she asked the Knight Forum to remove a video of her making the remark from its website, and the organization has since done so.

“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 at the time. “My mistake was unintentional and an inaccurate representation of the facts.”

‘A Long And Difficult Year’

Today’s letter points to two articles published at Mississippi Today during the past 12 months. One is the publication’s 2022 Impact Report, which cites reporter Anna Wolfe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on Phil Bryant and the welfare scandal, “The Backchannel.”

The August 2022 impact report says that the series “revealed former Gov. Phil Bryant’s role in a sprawling welfare scandal” and that “each part of the series delved further into Bryant’s misuse and squandering of at least $77 million in federal funds meant to assist nearly 588,000 of the state’s poorest residents.”

“Bryant did not misuse and squander at least $77 million in federal funds, and Wolfe’s investigative series did not reveal that he did,” the July 24 letter from Bryant’s attorney, William M. Quin, says.

screenshot of first page of letter
Gov. Phil Bryant’s July 24, 2023, notice of suit to Mississippi Today

The letter also cites the publication’s May 8, 2023, article on Wolfe winning the Pulitzer Prize. That article claims that her investigation “revealed for the first time how former Gov. Phil Bryant used his office to steer the spending of millions of federal welfare dollars—money intended to help the state’s poorest residents—to benefit his family and friends, including NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre.”

The Pulitzer Prize Committee’s own announcement on the award used similar language, saying Wolfe “revealed how a former governor used his office to steer millions of state welfare dollars to benefit his family and friends,” but Bryant’s attorney’s letter this week does not target the Pulitzer Committee.

“Bryant did not use his office to steer the spending of millions of federal welfare dollars to benefit his family and friends, and Wolfe’s investigative series did not reveal that he did,” Quin’s letter says.

Quin’s latest letter indicates that the former governor does not plan to sue publications that republished Mississippi Today statements about him, citing the Mississippi Code stating that the original source of defamation is liable for secondary publication. “The republication of your libelous claim by traditional and social media outlets is a natural consequence of your actions,” the letter states. “Accordingly, you are liable for the reputational and other damages caused by these republications.”

In both the impact report and the Pulitzer Prize story, the letter alleges, Mississippi Today’s claim “injures Bryant’s reputation; it exposes him to public hatred, contempt, and ridicule; it degrades him in society; and it lessens him in public esteem and lowers him in the confidence of the community.”

“The accusation is false and libelous,” the letter adds.

Wolfe’s series about the former governor 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. Both have pleaded guilty to crimes.

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 response to a filing by multiple media outlets, including the Mississippi Free Press. In the video announcing that he had decided to release texts, Bryant 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.”

‘A Long And Difficult Year’

The State of Mississippi is currently suing dozens of people in a civil case in an attempt to recoup millions in TANF funds. Since Anna Wolfe’s Backchannel series began, many of the texts she initially reported based on an anonymous 2022 source leak, along with hundreds of previously unreported texts, have become public as part of the ongoing litigation.

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.

a photo of Nancy New, Phil Bryant and John Davis
Mississippi Community Education Center Director Nancy New, left, and former Mississippi Department of Human Services Director John Davis, right, have both pleaded guilty to crimes in the Mississippi welfare scandal. Former Gov. Phil Bryant, center, has not been charged with any crimes and has denied any wrongdoing. Photo courtesy MSDH

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. That included a much-discussed text on Dec. 27, 2018, in which Bryant told Brett Favre and concussion drug company Prevacus founder Jake VanLandingham that he would “open a hole.”

A Mississippi Free Press review of the full communications in context suggests Bryant was referring to connecting Favre and VanLandingham with potential investors and individuals with Federal Food & Drug Administration connections, such as former Sen. Rick Santorum—not to moving welfare funds toward the project. Though both Favre and VanLandingham are targets in the State’s civil suit, both have denied accusations of wrongdoing, and neither has been charged with a crime.

Wolfe is not named as a target of Bryant’s latest demand letter. The prior one in May, however, did demand that she and Mississippi Today Editor-in-Chief Adam Ganucheau apologize for comments they made in a May 10 podcast. In the recording on the Mississippi Today website, Wolfe said she did not “think that we’ve overtly … painted it like we were convicting these people,” and the editor said the newsroom had “been careful not to say he’s guilty of a crime,” referring to Bryant.

In the May demand letter, Quin described remarks by the Backchannel editor and reporter as “evidence of a poorly executed conspiracy to gaslight and deceive the public, and to allow the continued defamation of former Governor Bryant to persist.” But while CEO White publicly apologized for claiming the reporting proved Bryant “embezzled” welfare funds, neither Ganucheau nor Wolfe apologized for, nor retracted, their comments on the podcast.

As of now, Bryant’s lawyers have not taken any legal action over the allegations in the May 10 demand letter. Neither Deep South Today nor Mississippi Today representatives responded to a request for comment for this story as of press time.

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