A new leader will helm the federal investigation into Mississippi’s $77-million welfare scandal after the U.S. Senate voted to confirm Todd Gee as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi on Friday, Sept. 29.
The office has not had a permanent leader since U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst, a Donald Trump appointee, stepped down in 2021, leaving Interim U.S. Attorney Darren LaMarca in charge. President Joe Biden nominated Gee in September 2022, but procedural delays prevented him from getting a vote for a year.
It took until April 2023 for U.S Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith to join fellow Mississippi Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker in returning a blue slip on Gee, following a Senate tradition that allows home-state senators to either endorse a nominee with a blue slip or block them by withholding support.
But in June, U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, an Ohio Republican, vowed to block Gee and other Biden Justice Department nominees in protest of criminal cases the department is pursuing against Trump.
“I’ve announced today that I will be holding all Department of Justice nominees that (U.S. Attorney General) Merrick Garland will use—if confirmed—not to enforce the law impartially, which is his duty, but clearly to harass his political opponents,” Vance said in a Twitter video in June. Despite Vance’s assertions, though, Garland is not directly in charge of the Trump prosecutions; he turned those investigations over to Special Counsel Jack Smith long before any indictments were made.
The halt on the Justice Department nominations drew a sharp rebuke from Senate Democrats.
“I rise today to speak about the critical role that U.S. Attorneys play in keeping America safe from the scourge of drugs—like opioids, fentanyl—gun violence, and violent crime. Why are we on the floor? We’re on the floor because one Senator has decided to stop the appointment of the United States Attorneys for the Department of Justice across the United States,” U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said on Sept. 27.
The Senate ultimately held a roll call vote, at Vance’s insistence, on the nominations on Sept. 29. Traditionally, the Senate has confirmed such appointees through a voice vote of the full chamber.
The Senate confirmed Gee 82-8, with Hyde-Smith and Wicker both voting to confirm the new U.S. attorney. All no votes came from Republicans, including Mike Braun of Indiana; Katie Britt of Alabama; Ted Cruz of Texas; Josh Hawley of Missouri; Ron Johnson of Wisconsin; Rand Paul of Kentucky; Eric Schmitt of Missouri; and Rick Scott of Florida.
Gee, a Vicksburg, Miss., native, served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia from 2007 to 2015; he has served as deputy chief of the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section since 2018.
In a statement before the vote on Friday morning, Mississippi State Auditor Shad White, whose office began the welfare fraud investigation and announced the first arrests in February 2020 alongside Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens, said Gee’s appointment will not change the work his office is doing. His office has long cooperated with ongoing state and federal investigations into the scheme, which saw at least $77 million in Temporary Assistance For Needy Families Funds that should’ve gone to the poorest Mississippians instead directed to illicit purposes, including toward wealthy sports celebrities and their favored projects.
“More than three years ago, my team and District Attorney Jody Owens put a stop to the welfare scheme in Mississippi with the indictment and arrest of six people,” White said in his Sept. 29 statement. “We also turned all our evidence over to federal authorities to show the public that the case would be fully investigated, all the way. At that time three years ago, federal investigators and the U.S. Attorney asked to take the lead on prosecuting any additional people beyond the first six defendants. My office agreed to assist them in any way possible.
“We have enjoyed a good relationship with federal prosecutors since then as they have deliberated about whom to charge, and the appointment of Mr. Gee changes nothing in our posture. We will continue to work with federal prosecutors to bring the case to a conclusion.”
Last week, two Republican members of Congress, Rep. Jason Smith of Missouri and Rep. Darin LaHood of Illinois, wrote a letter asking the U.S. Government Accountability Office Comptroller General to open a nationwide investigation into the use of TANF funds. “We are concerned that the Mississippi case is emblematic of a systemic problem,” they wrote.