Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves claimed in an Aug. 28, 2023 tweet that his Democratic opponent, Brandon Presley, had called on him to disassociate from donors to the University of Southern Mississippi and that he had called all USM supporters “corrupt” in relation to the state’s $77 million welfare scandal.
“Today, Brandon Presley held a press conference outside my home to call on me to disavow anyone who has donated to the University of Southern Mississippi,” Reeves tweeted, referring to remarks the Democrat delivered outside the governor’s mansion in Jackson. “He now says all Southern Miss supporters are corrupt. These are the mental gymnastics he has to do to tie me to a scandal that happened before my time in office where I’m suing the people who got the money.”
At the Aug. 28 press conference, Presley spoke about the welfare scandal, which involves millions in misspent Temporary Assistance For Needy Families funds that were directed to unallowed purposes and even to some sports celebrities and their causes, such as Brett Favre’s push to build a volleyball stadium at his alma mater, USM. Presley has made the scandal and opposing corruption a central message in his campaign and sought to tie Reeves, who was lieutenant governor at the time it unfolded between 2016 and 2019, to it. The Democratic candidate called on Reeves to return campaign contributions he said came from people with some connection to the TANF Scandal.
Presley cited specific individuals who donated money to Reeves, including over $270,00 from Joseph Canizaro, the New Orleans real estate developer from whom retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre and his business partner Jake VanLandingham sought a financial investment to fund their pharmaceutical company venture Prevacus. The since-indicted Mississippi Department of Human Services director at the time, John Davis, and the since-indicted nonprofit operator Nancy New wound up directing millions in welfare dollars to Prevacus, though Canizaro was not involved in that; Favre and VanLandingham have denied knowing welfare money was used. Investigators have not accused Canizaro of any wrongdoing, nor have they accused Favre or VanLandingham of any crimes.
At the press conference, Presley pointed to over a million in donations Reeves received from a list of 54 University of Southern Mississippi donors, including lobbyists, companies, benefactors and members of the USM Athletic Foundation. But many of those people had no relation to the welfare scandal, such as Sanderson Farms CEO Joe Frank Sanderson Jr. He is both a major Reeves donor and USM donor, but has never been accused of receiving or benefitting in any way from misspent welfare dollars.
Presley claimed that Reeves’ July 2022 decision to fire attorney Brad Pigott, who was investigating the welfare scandal while leading the State’s civil lawsuit designed to recoup lost funds, could have spurred some major USM donors to also give to Reeves. Pigott’s firing came after he issued subpoenas for information related to the use of millions in Temporary Assistance For Needy Families to build the volleyball stadium on the Hattiesburg campus.
Favre, whose daughter was a USM volleyball athlete at the time, for years sought help from Nancy New and state officials, including then-MDHS Director Davis and then-Gov. Phil Bryant, to fund the project. As with Prevacus, the retired quarterback has since denied knowing the funds came from welfare money; Bryant has also denied knowing Davis was directing welfare funds to the project until after State Auditor Shad White began investigating the department in 2019.
When he fired Pigott, Reeves accused the attorney of “chasing a political angle.” But the law firm the state hired to take over, Jones Walker LLP, has since moved forward investigating the USM volleyball funds.
“The donations to the Tate Reeves campaign from USM benefactors spiked by $244,000,” Presley said. “They had already given to each campaign over a million dollars while he was looking the other way and failing to perform any oversight during this welfare scandal.”
Although Presley questioned whether there was a link between the incumbent’s firing of Pigott and several dozen USM donors, he did not call on Reeves to disavow everyone who has donated to the university. Presley also did not claim that all USM supporters are corrupt, though he did provide a list of 54 specific individuals or entities whose donations who questioned—including someone for whom evidence of any links to the welfare scandal is non-existent.
The general election for all statewide offices, including governor, as well as legislative offices is Nov. 7. Register in person to vote by Oct. 9, 2023, or the mailed voter applications must be postmarked by Oct. 10, 2023, to qualify to vote on Election Day. The secretary of state’s website has more information at sos.ms.gov.