Four years ago on Dec. 18, 2019, nonprofit operator Nancy New sent then-Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant a thank-you by text message—believing he had saved state funding for her Mississippi Community Education Center. She had feared the Mississippi Department of Human Services was cutting off millions in welfare funds that her office had long been doling out—including to the likes of sports celebrities.
“From all the craziness going on, we had been made to believe we were not getting refunded. But we did. ‘Someone’ was definitely pulling for us behind the scenes. Thank you.” The governor responded only with a single emoji: “☺️.”
She did not know that, months earlier, Bryant had turned over information to the state auditor that kickstarted an investigation into officials at MDHS and several nonprofits the agency had tasked with overseeing welfare dollars—including hers. Within a few weeks, Bryant would order the interim MDHS director to cut off funding to MCEC completely.
In early February 2020, she and former MDHS Director John Davis would be among the first people arrested and charged in a scheme that diverted over $77 million in welfare funds away from the state’s poorest residents and toward wealthy people and projects they favored. But key questions have remained unanswered in the years since State Auditor Shad White and Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens first revealed the welfare scandal to the world.
For all the hundreds of text messages we’ve seen, for example, we still have not seen any proof that retired NFL star Brett Favre knew the money Davis and New were directing to him and his projects came from welfare funds. And despite rampant media speculation, we still have not seen evidence that either Bryant or his successor, Gov. Tate Reeves, knew or were involved in any alleged crimes related to the welfare funds. (Text messages the Mississippi Free Press obtained through a public records request showed Favre asked Reeves for help getting legislative funds for his USM volleyball project, but included no mention of welfare funds nor any indication that Reeves followed through).
And although Favre sat with state attorneys for a nine-hour deposition in Hattiesburg, Miss., on Dec. 11, the public is unlikely to learn anything from that interrogation anytime soon. Soon after the State scheduled the deposition, a Hinds County Circuit Court judge issued an order sealing certain discovery materials from public view—including deposition transcripts.
But as the welfare scandal nears its fourth year in the public eye, we at the Mississippi Free Press vow to continue examining the facts, asking important questions and informing the public—without sensationalism or presuppositions of guilt or innocence. The theft of funds that should have helped the poorest people in the poorest state and the government failures that allowed it remain vital stories to tell and uncover.