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Phil Bryant Sues Mississippi Today, Alleges Defamation Over Welfare Scandal Articles, Remarks

a screenshot of a Mississippi Today article shows Phil Bryant with Andrew Lack and the caption that says "Gov. Phil Bryant and Mississippi Today founder Andrew Lack, chairman of NBC News and MSNBC, at the launch party for the new digital news service. Credit: Photo by Joe Lee"
Former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant filed a lawsuit against Mississippi Today and its CEO, alleging defamation for articles remarks claiming he “steered,” “squandered” and “embezzled” millions in welfare funds. Bryant is seen here in a photo, left, with Mississippi Today’s founder and executive chair, former NBC News chief Andy Lack, right, in a story about the publication’s 2016 launch. Screenshot: Mississippi Today website

Former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant has sued Mississippi Today, alleging that the online news publication and its CEO defamed him by claiming he “embezzled,” “squandered” and “steered” $77 million in welfare funds “to benefit his family and friends, including NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre.”

Complaint against Deep South Today Mary Margaret White
Click the thumbnail to read former Gov. Phil Bryant’s complaint against Mississippi Today.

The Republican former governor has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing in the State’s still-unraveling welfare scandal, and neither state nor federal prosecutors have charged him with a crime. Bryant’s attorney says no state or federal investigators have contacted him. No public reporting to date, including from Mississippi Today, has definitively shown that he directed welfare dollars toward illegal projects.

Former NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack founded the Ridgeland-based Mississippi Today, which is now part of a planned chain under the Deep South Today umbrella, in 2016. Bryant attended the publication’s launch party in downtown Jackson, but has since been at odds with the publication over its reporting since 2020 that has focused on allegations that he played a substantial role in the illegal misspending of $77 million in federal welfare dollars. Mississippi Today reporter Anna Wolfe’s Backchannel series “uncovers the depth of former Gov. Phil Bryant’s involvement within a sprawling welfare scandal,” the publication says in its SEO summary of the Backchannel series that appears in search engine results.

The facts listed in the complaint, which Bryant’s lawyer filed in Madison County Circuit Court Wednesday, begin by reciting remarks Wolfe made to former Democratic U.S. House Rep. Ronnie Shows on his radio program on Dec. 16, 2021.

“I think the big questions that I have now that I’m trying to answer are the big questions that everyone has about how far up the chain this is going to go. And if the people that are investigating this and have the power to do something about it, if they’re really going after everyone they should, and everyone who should be held accountable, namely the former governor, Phil Bryant,” Wolfe said during the interview.

Though she is not listed as a defendant, Bryant’s lawsuit alleges that the reporter’s remarks were “false and slanderous” and “inconsistent with the information Wolfe gathered during her reporting.”

“Wolfe heavily implied that Bryant committed a crime; she said prosecutors should ‘go after’ him; and she insinuated that a jury should hold Bryant ‘accountable,’” Bryant’s complaint says. “Wolfe expressed concern, however, that prosecutors would not pursue an indictment and conviction of Bryant.”

‘Institutional Belief That Fueled the Defamation’

The complaint alleges that Mississippi Today CEO Mary Margaret White later defamed Bryant at February 2023 Knight Forum in Miami, Fla., when she claimed Mississippi Today was “the newsroom that broke the story about $77 million in welfare funds, intended for the poorest people in the poorest state in the nation, being embezzled by a former governor and his bureaucratic cronies to be used on pet projects like a state-of-the-art volleyball stadium at Brett Favre’s alma mater.”

“White made her false and slanderous accusation to exaggerate Mississippi Today’s accomplishments and to harm Bryant,” the complaint alleges. “White’s slanderous accusation proved that Wolfe’s statement 14-months earlier was not a mistake and illustrated the institutional belief that fueled the defamation and ethical breaches outlined in this complaint. White decided that she would publicly persecute Bryant for embezzling $77 million of welfare funds if criminal authorities would not prosecute him, regardless of whether her accusation is true.”

The Mississippi Free Press’ reporting on texts revealed in a civil lawsuit the State filed against defendants in the welfare fraud scandal, which do not include the former governor, shows that Bryant repeatedly discussed helping Favre obtain funding for the volleyball stadium using private fundraising. The texts, however, do not show any instance in which Bryant specified that welfare funds should be used for the project.

Other text messages Bryant revealed in May, read in context, also did not show any evidence that he directed welfare funds to be used to fund a concussion drug Favre was invested in, though they did show his efforts to help connect the company with other potential investors and officials in the Trump administration.

‘I Sincerely Apologize’

In May, Bryant attorney William M. Quin sent a notice of suit to Mississippi Today demanding an apology for White’s claim that he “embezzled” welfare funds. Such notices are required before filing a lawsuit under Mississippi law. White responded days later with a note on the Mississippi Today website, saying that she “misspoke at a recent media confederation regarding the accusations in the $77 million welfare scandal.”

“He has not been charged with any crime. My remark was inappropriate, and I sincerely apologize,” White said in the note, without specifying that she had accused the former governor of embezzling welfare funds. “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. My mistake was unintentional and an inaccurate representation of the facts.”

a screencap of Mary Margaret White speaking on a stage while sitting in a chair
Mississippi Today CEO Mary Margaret White said in a May 2023 note that she “misspoke” after she described former Gov. Phil Bryant as “embezzling” millions in welfare funds at a February 2023 Knight Forum event in Miami, Fla. Screencap courtesy Knight Foundation

Bryant’s complaint today describes White’s note as a “non-apology apology” and says it “does not meet the prerequisites for limiting the liability of White and Mississippi Today to actual damages” under Mississippi’s defamation laws.

“White should have retracted her slanderous accusation, apologized clearly and unequivocally stated that Mississippi Today has no evidence that Bryant embezzled welfare or other public funds,” the complaint says. “She intentionally refused to do so after consulting with colleagues and advisors.” It says a “full-and-fair correction would have included a clear and unqualified declaration that Bryant did not embezzle $77 million of welfare funds and that Mississippi Today has never broken a story claiming otherwise.”

“White did not retract or disavow her slanderous claim that Mississippi Today broke the story of Bryant embezzling $77 million of welfare funds,” the complaint continues. “On the contrary, White’s non-apology apology reinforced her claim and implied that criminal prosecutors refuse to prosecute Bryant for embezzlement.”

Bryant’s May notice of suit also demanded that Wolfe and Mississippi Today Editor-in-Chief Adam Ganucheau apologize for comments they made in a May 10, 2023, podcast soon after news broke in state media about the Knight Foundation remarks. 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.

Complaint Alleges Editor ‘Concealed’ Mother’s Identity

Bryant’s attorney also aimed at other remarks 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 criminal defendants in the welfare case 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.

a photo of the USM volleyball stadium seen from around an oak tree
Mississippi Today’s reporting on the welfare scandal since 2020 has often zeroed in on the University of Southern Mississippi volleyball stadium, which was funded using millions in welfare dollars. Photo by Ashton Pittman

In the editor’s note, he acknowledged 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.” He said in the letter that he did not learn about his mother’s role in approving the volleyball contract until Y’all Politics contacted him a week earlier and that he would “add an editor’s note to each future story mentioning the USM volleyball project.”.

Ganucheau then blamed partisan politics for the non-disclosure criticism.

“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 September 2022 editor’s note. “We will follow and report the story wherever it leads us, just as we always have.”

But in Wednesday’s complaint, Bryant’s attorney claims that “(Adam) Ganucheau and Wolfe knew long before September 20, 2022, that Ganucheau’s mother recommended the lease to the IHL board”; that “they concealed this information until another media outlet exposed it”; and that “they have continued to hide the full scope of her authority and involvement from Mississippi Today’s audience.” The complaint does not cite evidence that either the editor or reporter knew about Stephanie Ganucheau’s role before they say they did, however.

The complaint says that Ganucheau’s note about his mother’s involvement is at odds with his claim in the May 2023 podcast that Mississippi Today never had to issue any retractions or corrections related to the Backchannel series.

“Ganucheau and Wolfe had an opportunity to correct these false and slanderous accusations, but they intentionally added insult to injury by denying the accusations were made,” the filing says.

MT Attorney: Claims Bryant ‘Squandered’ Funds ‘Are True’

Former Gov. Bryant’s complaint also cites a report and two articles Mississippi Today published as evidence of alleged defamation. In August 2022, Mississippi Today published its 2022 Impact Report and an Aug. 11, 2022, article on the report. The report said that each part of Wolfe’s Backchannel 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.” The complaint says “Bryant did not misuse and squander ‘at least $77 million in federal funds,’ and Wolfe’s investigative series did not reveal that he did.”

After Wolfe’s Backchannel series won a Pulitzer Prize local reporting award in May 2023, Mississippi Today published an article celebrating the accomplishment on May 8, 2023.

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.”

Notice of suit pursuant to Miss. Code Ann. 95-1-5
Click above to read the letter Mississippi Today’s lawyer Henry Laird sent Phil Bryant’s lawyer on July 25, 2023.

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 dollars to benefit his family and friends, and Wolfe’s investigative series did not reveal that he did,” the complaint says.

Bryant’s lawsuit alleges that the accusations in both Mississippi Today’s mid-year 2022 impact article and its Pulitzer article “injured and continues to injure Bryant’s reputation; it diminishes and continues to reduce the esteem, respect, goodwill, and confidence in which he is held; and it excited and continues to excite adverse, derogatory, and unpleasant feelings or opinions about him.”

The former governor’s attorneys sent Mississippi Today a second notice of suit on Monday, July 24, asking for apologies and retractions for the claims that he “squandered” or “steered” welfare funds to illegal purposes. Henry Laird, a lawyer for Mississippi Today, responded with a letter the next day, rejecting the demands. The letter was included in Bryant’s court filings.

“I have considered your factual and legal analysis and disagree with you. The August 11, 2022 and May 8, 2023 Mississippi Today publications are true, and consequently, there is nothing to be retracted or corrected,” the attorney wrote.

Bryant Seeks Reporter’s Communications

The complaint says that Bryant is seeking “compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorneys’ fees, and costs from Mississippi Today” as well as from White. The former governor’s lawyers are requesting a jury trial.

“Wolfe and White’s slanderous claims, Mississippi Today’s libelous claims, the gaslighting denials of Wolfe and Ganucheau during the podcast, and Mississippi Today’s concealment of Stephanie Ganucheau’s involvement with the USM volleyball facility project illustrate the concerted effort within Mississippi Today to defame Bryant and to mislead Mississippi Today’s readership and podcast audience,” the complaint alleges.

Bryant’s attorney also issued subpoenas to four people seeking their communications with Wolfe: Former Mississippi Department of Human Services Deputy Administrator Jacob Black, who is a defendant in the State’s civil lawsuit over the misspent welfare funds; former MDHS Deputy Executive Director Garrigues Shields, another defendant; Brad Pigott, the attorney who previously led the civil lawsuit before Gov. Tate Reeves fired him; and Gerry Bufkin, the attorney for criminal and civil defendant Nancy New, who has pleaded guilty and is a defendant in the State’s lawsuit demanding repayment of the stolen funds.

Bryant’s initial written discovery filing also requests documents and communications “related to White’s claim that Bryant embezzled $77 million in welfare funds” and “Wolfe’s claim to Shows that Bryant committed a crime.” It also asks Mississippi Today to “admit that Wolfe communicated with” Black, Shields, Pigott, Bufkin and MDHS Executive Director Bob Anderson “while she reported on the scandal involving employees and contractors of the Mississippi Department of Human Services.” The discovery filing also asks the publication to “produce all communications” between Wolfe and each person noted. The filings do not include evidence that Wolfe communicated with all those individuals as sources, however.

Attorney Brad Pigott speaking at a podium
Former Gov. Phil Bryant’s attorney is seeking documents and communications between Anna Wolfe and multiple individuals, including attorney Brad Pigott, pictured, who previously led the State of Mississippi’s civil litigation efforts to recover stolen welfare funds. Bryant’s attorney also sent subpoenas to Pigott and others on July 26, 2023. Photo by Ashton Pittman

The complaint notes that proving a defamation claim by a public figure requires “a false and defamatory statement concerning the plaintiff”; “unprivileged publication by the defendant to a third party”; “fault amounting to actual malice of the defendant”; and “either actionability of the statement irrespective of the special harm or the existence of special harm caused by the publication.”

In each instance cited for the defamation claims, the complaint alleges that Mississippi Today and White “acted with actual malice” because they knew their accusations were false and “recklessly disregarded the accusation’s truthfulness.”

Mississippi Today did not respond to a request for comment for this story by press time.

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