Close this search box.
Former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant speaks to guests
Former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant sought to add Mississippi Today reporter Anna Wolfe, whose reporting on Mississippi’s sprawling $77 million welfare scandal has often focused on the ex-governor, as a defendant in a libel lawsuit against the publication in a Jan. 3, 2024 court filing. Bryant first filed the lawsuit against Mississippi Today after the news site’s CEO claimed he “embezzled” welfare funds during a journalism forum, but later apologized and said she misspoke. AP Photo Rogelio V. Solis

Ex-Gov. Phil Bryant Now Targeting Reporter in Defamation Lawsuit Over Welfare Scandal Reporting

A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter could become the latest defendant in former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant’s ongoing lawsuit against online news publication Mississippi Today.

The Republican politician, who led the state from 2012 to 2020, sued the publication last year over since-retracted remarks its CEO, Mary Margaret White, made onstage at a journalism forum in which she claimed he “embezzled” welfare funds. The lawsuit also cited promotional materials that White and Mississippi Today Editor-in-Chief Adam Ganucheau wrote to promote the publication’s reporting on Mississippi’s $77-million welfare scandal that focused heavily on Bryant.

Now, the former governor’s legal team is seeking to add reporter Anna Wolfe, whose “The Backchannel” series earned the publication a coveted local-reporting Pulitzer Prize last May, as a defendant. The allegations targeted two stories she reported late last December—months after the governor filed his original defamation lawsuit against the newsprofit news outlet and its umbrella organization Deep South Today and its board members.

Read Former Gov. Phil Bryant’s Jan. 3, 2024, filing to add reporter Anna Wolfe as a defendant in his defamation lawsuit.

Wolfe reported on Dec. 19, 2023, that retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre and his business partner, Jake VanLandingham, once sought Bryant’s help getting a $25,000 investment to help Prevacus—a pharmaceutical company promising to produce concussion drugs. Wolfe’s report was based on allegations in a court filing by the former nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center nonprofit director Nancy New, who has pleaded guilty to state and federal crimes in the welfare case. The story said VanLandingham had gotten suckered into a gold-bar scam in Ghana, Africa, and that he was trying to obtain the money for a “geological analysis” an investor said he needed in order to secure a $1-million investment for Prevacus out of Ghana. VanLandingham, who founded Prevacus, had already brought Favre on as a business partner.

“VanLandingham tried to get Favre to secure $25,000 through an investment in Prevacus from one of his fellow professional athletes, but they wouldn’t bite,” Wolfe’s report stated. “Then Favre suggested they ask the then-Mississippi governor for help and offer him stock in the company. Bryant bit.”

Prevacus would later be embroiled in the welfare scandal after it received millions in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds that the since-indicted former Mississippi Department of Human Services Director John Davis agreed to give the company along with indicted nonprofit operator Nancy New, who also pleaded guilty. Bryant, who appointed Davis in 2016, has denied knowing welfare funds went to Prevacus or numerous other illicit projects, including a volleyball stadium at Favre’s alma mater.

In a proposed amended complaint on Jan. 3, 2024, Bryant’s attorneys denied the accuracy of Wolfe’s reporting, citing her claim that “Bryant bit” on VanLandingham’s and Favre’s offer.

“Wolfe published that Bryant committed to investing $25,000 in Prevacus at the December 2018 meeting. Bryant did not commit to investing $25,000 in Prevacus at this meeting or any other occasion. Wolfe’s statement is false, intentionally misleading, and defamatory,” Bryant’s amended complaint says.

Prosecutors have not accused Bryant, Favre or VanLandingham of a crime, but Favre and VanLandingham are civil defendants, along with Nancy New, in a lawsuit the State launched in an effort to claw back misspent welfare funds.

‘An Unusual Defamation Lawsuit’

In an interview last year after former Gov. Bryant first filed his lawsuit alleging defamation over CEO White’s embezzlement remark and the two promotional articles, media law expert Dylan McLemore, a professor in the University of Central Arkansas School of Mass Communication, told the Mississippi Free Press that he was “surprised” the governor had moved forward with threats to sue the publication.

“I thought Gov. Bryant was puffing out his chest trying to get some favorable reporting but seeing him actually follow through with the lawsuit was an interesting step. I don’t think the case is meritless—I think there are some parts of it that have some legs,” he said soon after Bryant filed the lawsuit on July 28, 2023. 

[Editor’s Note: McLemore disclosed that he has donated to both the Mississippi Free Press and Mississippi Today; donations do not affect the MFP’s reporting decisions.]

A womamn holds her arms up in a celebratory style while holding a bottle of champaign in one hand. A sign behind her reads Mississippi Today
Mississippi Today reporter Anna Wolfe celebrated winning the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting on May 8, 2023, for her “Backchannel” series on the Mississippi Department of Human Services’ massive welfare scandal that focused heavily on Phil Bryant, was governor at the time but has denied any role in the misuse of $77 million in welfare funds. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

The professor noted at the time that the lawsuit would open both Mississippi Today and Bryant up to discovery—meaning Mississippi Today could use the process to obtain potentially damaging documents if any existed. But Bryant’s willingness to go forward despite those risks, he said, suggested that the governor may not believe he has anything to hide.

McLemore said at the time that the initial complaint was “an unusual defamation lawsuit” because it was not focused on the reporting but on the CEO’s public remarks and on materials that promoted the reporting.

In a follow-up interview on Feb. 22, 2024, McLemore said that the Bryant team’s decision to also add Wolfe as a defendant for her reporting could strengthen the governor’s legal arguments.

“I think it does help Bryant’s case overall that they can now refer to actual reporting and not just PR reports about reporting,” he said. Still, it is not easy for a high-profile figure like Bryant to win a lawsuit against a media organization or a reporter.

Proving Libel, Defending Against It

To win a libel lawsuit, a public official has a higher burden than the average person; not only must a public official like former Gov. Phil Bryant prove that the defendant made a false statement, but also that the defendant did so with “actual malice.” That means the former governor must show that Mississippi Today made or published false statements knowing they were false or with reckless disregard to their falsity.

Bryant’s team has argued that he can do that, but Mississippi Today has rebuffed any allegations of malice, saying in its original answer to the lawsuit that the publication is “free of any negligence.”

“The news story about which Plaintiffs complain involves issues of public interest and concern requiring Plaintiff to prove New York Times v. Sullivan malice by clear and convincing evidence, which he cannot do,” Mississippi Today’s Aug. 25, 2023, filing said, referring to a landmark 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case that outlined key press protections against defamation lawsuits.

Most states have shield laws that explicitly protect journalists from subpoenas related to their work, but Mississippi is not one of them. As part of the lawsuit, Bryant has sought to obtain documents from Mississippi Today that could uncover Wolfe’s sources in the Backchannel series. Mississippi Today has argued against those efforts, citing the “reporter’s privilege not to reveal sources and unpublished information” that courts across the country have long recognized, including the U.S. Supreme Court. But Bryant has succeeded in obtaining some documents showing Wolfe’s communications with sources by subpoenaing suspected sources.

Two men in light grey suits speak into mics at a hearing
Former Mississippi Department of Human Services Deputy Director Jacob Black (left) turned over text messages with Mississippi Today reporter Anna Wolfe following a subpoena from former Gov. Phil Bryant on Aug. 23, 2024. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Bryant’s efforts to uncover the source of Wolfe’s reporting about him include a subpoena targeting former Mississippi Department of Human Services Deputy Director Jacob Black, who is now a defendant in the State’s civil lawsuit. In mid-2019, Black notified Bryant about possible wrongdoing at MDHS under John Davis; Bryant then turned the tip over to State Auditor Shad White, kicking off the MDHS welfare investigation. In August 2023, Black responded to Bryant’s subpoena by returning 10 pages of text messages and Facebook messages between himself and Wolfe dating back to 2018 or 2019. The messages end in December 2022, when the reporter was working on a story about the State naming him as a defendant in the civil lawsuit. But despite obtaining those messages, Bryant still has not obtained any materials from Wolfe during the discovery process.

McLemore told the Mississippi Free Press on Feb. 26 that Mississippi Today’s No. 1 defense would be to prove the overarching claims about Bryant’s involvement in the welfare scandal—even if Bryant could prove some details in the reporting were wrong. For example, even if the former governor never agreed to a $25,000 investment to help VanLandingham, McLemore said, Mississippi Today could still win if the publication proved he had directed welfare funds toward Prevacus.

“Minor details can be false if the overarching significant facts are true,” McLemore said. “… So that could potentially be another line of defense—is if this one detail turns out to be incorrect, would it still change the reputation of Bryant in the minds of a juror if he did indeed move the millions of dollars?”

So far, text messages and other documents—including those made public in court filings, reporting at publications like this one and Mississippi Today, and released by former Gov. Bryant himself—have not proven that the former governor directed welfare dollars to Prevacus or any other purposes investigators say was illegal or that he broke any laws. Authorities have not charged him or Brett Farve nor named them publicly as targets of criminal investigations.

Text messages Bryant released last year between himself, Favre and VanLandingham show that, starting in December 2018, the two men reached out to Bryant to ask for help with Prevacus. While the texts show that Bryant agreed to speak with several wealthy and powerful individuals about the project, including officials in the Trump White House, none of the texts he released nor any documents Wolfe has reported show that Bryant agreed to direct welfare funds toward the project or that he agreed to invest $25,000.

Guilty Nonprofit Director Lobs New Allegations

On Monday, Feb. 26, criminal and civil defendant Nancy New, the former nonprofit director involved in the welfare scandal who has pleaded guilty to federal and state charges, made new accusations against Bryant in a court filing in Hinds County. The filing, which is part of New’s efforts to defend against the State’s attempts to recoup millions in ill-used welfare funds from her in civil court, alleges that Bryant was more deeply involved in the welfare scandal than she had previously claimed.

The civil and criminal defendant alleged in the filing that she was talking to the governor at a Christmas Party at the Governor’s Mansion in 2019 when “Jake (VanLandingham)’s name came up” and “Governor Bryant got excited and told me that Jake had offered him ‘half the company,’ which I understood to mean a substantial amount of stock, but the Governor said he was going to have to wait until he was out of office to accept.”

A blonde woman in black centers the frame, a black uniformed officer in the foreground to the left
Non-profit founder Nancy New pleaded guilty in April 2022 to charges related to the largest welfare scandal in Mississippi history. Court filings say she helped direct $5 million in Temporary Assistance For Needy Families funds toward building a volleyball stadium and $1.1 million to retired NFL star Brett Favre. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File

New has not made those allegations under oath, however. She has previously suggested that Bryant was involved in the scheme and provided snippets of texts with him in a 2022 filing, but some of those texts appeared less damning once the former governor released additional messages that provided more context than New’s selections had offered. One of New’s sons, Zachary New, is a criminal and civil defendant along with her in the case; her other son, Jess New, is a civil defendant but has not been charged with any crimes connected to the welfare scandal. Like his mother, Jess New alleged that Bryant was actively involved in the welfare scandal in a civil complaint against Bryant on Wednesday, Feb. 28.

Bryant’s attorneys said they could not comment on the News’ filings for this story because the former governor is now under a gag order after Brett Favre’s lawyers sought to depose him as part of their defense strategy in the State’s civil lawsuit. Though Bryant is not a defendant in the case, his decision to agree to sit for a deposition made him subject to the order like all the defendants in the case. (The deposition, which had been scheduled for Jan. 25, apparently never happened).

“If there wasn’t a gag order in place we’d forcefully respond,” Bryant spokesman Denton Gibbes told the Mississippi Free Press in a statement on Tuesday, Feb. 27. “We’ll let our libel action against Mississippi Today speak for us.”

Texts Suggest Bryant Never Accepted Stock Offer

The texts former Gov. Bryant released last year do show that Jake VanLandingham offered to give him stock in the company in a Dec. 6, 2018, group text that included Favre. “We don’t know the rules but are willing to do what is needed to bring you on board,” VanLandingham wrote, while also saying that he and Favre were “hopeful to get a group of investors together perhaps with your help and come up to Jackson.”

Bryant did not appear to respond to the stock offer in the text, writing, “just let me know and we will call a team meeting at the Governors Mansion,” apparently in response to VanLandingham’s mention of bringing a  group of investors to Jackson.

screenshot of text shows Brett Favre saying: "Governor maybe ou could ask the president if he would reach out to some folks" Bryant replies: "Will do. Have a WH call now. He is in Europe much of this week but we will get a call back soon" Jake Vanlandingham writes: "We need to get some investors to get this product selling. Governor can we bring you onboard with ownership now?" Bryant replies: Cannot til January 15th. But would love to talk then. This is the type of thing I love to be a part of. Something save lives..."
Jake VanLandingham urged then Gov. Phil Bryant to come “onboard with ownership” at Prevacus on Dec. 2, 2019, but Bryant said he could not until he left office on Jan. 15, 2020. Phil Bryant Text

A series of text messages a year later, just before the party New says she attended at the Governor’s Mansion that December, suggest Bryant did not accept VanLandingham’s initial stock offer. “[W]e need to get some investors to get this product selling. Governor can we bring you onboard with ownership now?” VanLandingham wrote in the group text with Favre and Bryant on Dec. 2, 2019.

“Cannot till January 15th,” replied the Republican governor, who would be leaving office on Jan. 14, 2020, to make way for his successor, Tate Reeves. “But would love to talk then. This is the type of thing I love to be a part of. Something that saves lives…”

VanLandingham wrote Bryant again in another text message on Jan. 16, 2020. “Now that you’re unemployed I’d like to give you a company package for all your help,” the Prevacus founder wrote. “Let me know when you come up for air but know we want and need you on our team!!!”

“Sounds good,” Bryant replied. The two eventually made plans on Feb. 4, 2020, to meet a week later to discuss VanLandingham’s proposal while Bryant was visiting the Gulf Coast. But those plans would quickly unravel.

“Is this your company mentioned in the second paragraph?” Bryant wrote in a text message to VanLandingham the next day, attaching a screenshot from a news article.

Earlier that day on Feb. 5, 2020, Republican Mississippi State Auditor Shad White and Democratic Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens broke the news of the TANF scandal when they announced the arrests of John Davis, Nancy New, Zachary New and three other people connected to what White called a “sprawling conspiracy” involving tens of millions in misspent welfare funds. At the same time that prosecutors alleged Davis and New were doling out millions in welfare dollars to help wealthy and well-connected friends, the State had been denying up to 99% of poor Mississippi families with children who applied for $170 in monthly TANF benefits.

Mississippi State Auditor Shad White, left, listens to Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens answer reporters questions
Republican Mississippi State Auditor Shad White, left, and Democratic Hinds County Attorney General Jody Owens, right, broke the news of the investigation into the $77 million welfare scandal in a Feb. 5, 2024, announcement. They are seen here answering reporters’ questions in the Hinds County Circuit Court in Jackson, Miss., on April 26, 2022. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

White and Owens alleged numerous illegal uses of TANF funds, including saying that the News transferred millions to their private business and that, along with Davis, they created “a fraud scheme to take TANF funds to pay for personal investments in medical device companies (Prevacus, Inc., and PreSolMD, LLC) in Florida.”

VanLandingham told Bryant the Florida-based companies mentioned were indeed his. “Yes, I got subpoenaed and just gave them everything. I was clueless,” the Prevacus founder wrote in the text.

“Not good…,” Bryant replied.

“For me? They signed the contract to provide as a grant. I met them at Favre’s house,” VanLandingham wrote.

“I cannot be involved in any way until I know this investigation clears the company of any wrongdoing,” Bryant wrote. “You may want to talk to an attorney.”

VanLandingham insisted that he “had know (sic) idea about any of this,” but that he had “cooperated fully and obviously I’m not a co-conspirator in this mess whatever it is.”

“I was unaware your company had ever received any TANF funds,” Bryant wrote in another text message to VanLandingham on Feb. 10, 2020. “If some received anything of benefit personally then Legal Issues certainly exist. I can have no further contact with your company. It is unfortunate to find ourselves at this point. I was hoping we could have somehow helped those who suffer from Brain Injuries. This has put that hope on the sidelines.”

“I too was unaware of TANF fund issue,” the Florida businessman replied. “Hopefully this gets cleared up soon. We are well on our way to helping those with brain injuries.”

“Did you receive TANIF (sic) Funds?” Bryant asked.

“Our contract was with MCEC. That’s all I know,” VanLandingham answered.

“I am sure you will be contacted soon,” the former governor wrote.

Bryant Alleges ‘An Outright Lie Calculated to Mislead’

Dylan McLemore, the media law expert, said he does not think Nancy New’s latest filing will affect the defamation lawsuit—unless her allegations against former Gov. Bryant can be proven during the course of the State’s civil lawsuit.

“If that case manages to substantiate the claims Bryant contends are false, there would be no grounds for defamation,” he said on Feb. 27. “But we’re a long way from that.”

With Bryant’s most recent allegations about Wolfe’s report, McLemore said, Mississippi Today will “either need to demonstrate (Bryant) gave the $25,000 or was involved in moving the large sum of the money—unless they’re going to hang onto technicalities of what ‘(Bryant) bit’ means.” He clarified that the burden is on Bryant to prove falsity, though, and said Mississippi Today could also prevail if Bryant failed “to convincingly demonstrate falsity.”

Bryant’s proposed third amended complaint also takes aim at another Wolfe story Mississippi Today published on Dec. 19, 2023.

“Bryant, who is suing Mississippi Today for defamation, has sent threats to the news outlet for continuing to report this story, including basic updates about public court documents,” the reporter wrote. Bryant’s filing claims that those “statements are false, intentionally misleading, and defamatory.”

“Bryant did not threaten Mississippi Today for ‘continuing to report this story,’ nor has he threatened Mississippi Today for reporting ‘basic updates about public court documents,’” the amended complaint says.

The former governor’s proposed third amended complaint says that Wolfe emailed Bryant’s media consultant, Denton Gibbes, on Dec. 14. Bryant’s filing quotes Wolfe’s letter, saying she wrote that New’s filing “suggests Bryant traveled to Ghana in August of 2019 because Prevacus’ founder had lost money to a scammer in the country.” 

“A press release says Bryant was in the country mid-August 2019 to strengthen ties between investors in Mississippi and Ghana. That appears to reference the situation with Prevacus,” Bryant’s filing quotes Wolfe’s email as saying.

The filing says that Gibbes forwarded Wolfe’s email to Bryant’s attorney, William M. Quin II.

“Ms. Wolfe: Denton Gibbes forwarded your email to him to me. As you are well aware, Governor Bryant has sued your publication and Mary Margaret White. I have copied their attorney on this email,” Quin wrote, the Jan. 3 filing says. “I have previously advised you to cease communications with Bryant and anyone on his behalf. You should communicate with me, and only me, and through Mr. Laird. Any further attempts to obtain information from my client directly or indirectly that do not go through me will result in my seeking sanctions from the court against Mississippi Today. This is your final warning.”

On Dec. 18, 2023, the filing says Mississippi Today attorney Henry Laird sent Quin several questions about Bryant’s trip to Ghana in August 2019: “What was the purpose of the visit? Will he tell us the details on how and when he started and ended planning the trip? In the MCEC civil litigation, it alleges that Jake VanLandingham asked for Mr. Bryant’s help with allegedly being scammed in an investment or investments in Ghana. Did Mr. Bryant have any involvement with trying to help Mr. VanLandingham, and if so, what are the details of that involvement?”

A close up of Phil Bryant, looking up
Former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant’s Jan. 3, 2024, proposed amended complaint denies Mississippi Today reporter Anna Wolfe’s Dec. 19, 2023, report that said the former governor “sent threats to the news outlet for continuing to report this story.” AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Several minutes later, Quin responded but told Laird that his reply was “not for publication,” Bryant’s Jan. 3 filing says.

“I believe the Ghana trip had to do with assisting with a malaria outbreak. I think there was a Mississippi company that made some device that could help. I’m sure the trip had several people and a documented schedule. I’m confident that I can retrieve more information about it,” Bryant’s attorney wrote. “Nancy New’s lawyer wrote in a counterclaim that ‘upon information and belief’ Bryant knew about VanLandingham’s investment loss and traveled to Ghana to recoup it, or something to that effect. That’s an absurd claim that’s wholly devoid of evidentiary support. Bryant didn’t know anything about VanLandingham’s investment or loss or involvement with anything having to do with Ghana. If Wolfe writes otherwise, I promise you that she’s the next defendant in our case. Wolfe should ask where the proof is for all things New alleged on information and belief. New’s claims are ridiculous.”

An hour later on Dec. 18, 2023, Laird responded with a follow-up: “Does Mr. Bryant have a statement?”

“Not for MS Today,” Quin replied. “Given its previous writings and the statements of its employees, we do not believe MS Today is trustworthy or reliable.”

Bryant’s Jan. 3 filing cites those exchanges as evidence that his attorney only threatened legal action if Wolfe continued attempting to contact Bryant without going through his attorney or if she reported New’s suggestion that Bryant was in Ghana to help VanLandingham as fact—not “for continuing to report this story” or for reporting “Basic updates about public court documents.”

“Wolfe’s mischaracterization of Quin’s communications is an outright lie calculated to mislead and garner sympathy from her readership,” Bryant’s filing says.

McLemore said he considered the Bryant team’s defamation claim over Wolfe’s allegation that he threatened her significantly weaker than its other allegation about what her report said about Bryant and VanLandingham’s proposed $25,000 investment. Regardless of the specifics, Bryant’s attorneys did threaten legal action of some sort, he said. “That one really doesn’t strike me as something that has much substance to it,” the media law expert added.

Neither Mississippi Today’s attorney nor its editor responded to multiple requests for comment for this story. But in a filing on Jan. 11, Mississippi Today’s lawyers pushed back on the attempt to add Wolfe to the lawsuit, noting that the Jan. 3 filing is just Bryant’s latest request to amend the original complaint against Mississippi Today.

“Having to answer of the Complaint a fourth time is unreasonable and works an undue hardship on defendants,” Mississippi Today’s response says. “To allow the Complaint to be amended again only invites the Plaintiff to continue to move to amend ad infinitum. The first publication in issue in this case is dated February 22, 2023, and the two publications subject to the most recent motion to amend are dated December 19, 2023, or ten months later. The constant amendment to complaints should stop. Plaintiff is abusing the process of the Court.”

‘I Bore No Ill Will Or Malice Toward Governor Bryant’

On May 8, 2023, the Pulitzer Prize Committee awarded Anna Wolfe its local reporting prize for what it described as “reporting that revealed how a former Mississippi governor used his office to steer millions of state welfare dollars to benefit his family and friends, including NFL quarterback Brett Favre.” Mississippi Today ran an article announcing the victory the same day, similarly writing that the reporting “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.”

Two days later on May 10, 2023, Phil Bryant’s lawyer sent letters demanding apologies for remarks Mississippi Today CEO Mary Margaret White made when she told an audience at the livestreamed Knight Media Forum in Miami, Fla., on Feb. 22, 2023, that 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.”

a screencap of Mary Margaret White speaking on a stage while sitting in a chair
Mississippi Today CEO Mary Margaret White apologized on May 17, 2023, for claiming former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant “embezzled” millions in welfare dollars while speaking at a national journalism conference audience. She said she “misspoke” and called her remark “inappropriate,” clarifying that officials have not accused Bryant of wrongdoing. She is seen here at the Feb. 22, 2023, media forum where she made the remark. Screencap courtesy Knight Forum

White apologized for the remarks in May 2023 after Bryant sent his demand letter, writing in a note published on the Mississippi Today website that she “misspoke” at the Knight Forum. “He has not been charged with any crime. My remark was inappropriate, and I sincerely apologize,” the CEO wrote.

But Bryant went forward with the lawsuit anyway, initially naming only White and Mississippi Today (including its umbrella organization, Deep South Today, which also launched the nonprofit Verité newsroom in New Orleans) as defendants. The complaint cited two promotional articles in addition to White’s remark. That included the publication’s May 2023 article on its Pulitzer Prize victory and an Aug. 11, 2022, article on the publication’s 2022 Impact Report that 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.” 

“Bryant did not misuse and squander ‘at least $77 million in federal funds,’ and Wolfe’s investigative series did not reveal that he did,” Bryant’s lawyers wrote in the original complaint. Similarly, the complaint rejected the publication’s Pulitzer announcement’s assertion that Bryant “used his office to steer the spending of millions of federal welfare dollars” and cited it as another alleged instance of defamation.

In court filings, Mississippi Today has maintained that its claims that Bryant “steered” or “squandered” welfare funds are true. The publication has also defended its CEO and her original remarks at the Knight Media Forum in February 2023.

In one filing on Oct. 31, 2023, Mississippi Today cited Smith v. Byrd, a 1955 Mississippi Supreme Court case in which a sheriff sued newspaper owner Hazel Brannon Smith, alleging the Lexington Advertiser had defamed him in a report that said a Black man “was shot in the left leg after being told to ‘get goin’ by Holmes County Sheriff Richard F. Byrd.” In fact, it had been a sheriff’s deputy who fired the shot, but some who read the passive sentence construction had assumed the sheriff had fired the shot. In its ruling, though, the Mississippi Supreme Court said “the plaintiff failed to prove the necessary falsity in his defamation claim since the ‘sheriff had shot a man was substantially true even though it was a sheriff’s deputy who actually fired the shot,’” Mississippi Today’s filing stated.

Mississippi Today argued in the filing that White’s statement about welfare funds “being embezzled by a former governor and his bureaucratic cronies” could be read similarly because Bryant was Davis’ boss.

“In the instant case, an unrebutted fact is that John Davis has pleaded guilty in the Southern District of Mississippi Federal District Court for his part in the TANF welfare scandal,” the Oct. 31, 2023, filing says. “In 2016, then Mississippi Governor Bryant appointed Mr. Davis as Director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services. … Section 43-1-2 Mississippi Code gave the power to Governor Bryant to remove Mr. Davis as Director at any time, which the Governor never did. Until Mr. Davis left the Director’s position at the Mississippi Department of Human Services, he was part of Governor Bryant’s administration.”

“A fair reading of the above quoted statement from the Mary Margaret White article is that Governor Bryant’s executive department committed fraud,” the Oct. 31 Mississippi Today filing continues. “John Davis pleaded guilty to federal welfare fraud charges along with four other defendants. Since pleading guilty, Mr. Davis has never been sentenced for his admitted crimes, presumably because he is cooperating with federal authorities in an ongoing criminal investigation. Therefore, that statement was substantially true, just as was the statement in Smith v. Byrd that the sheriff rather than his deputy had shot a man in the back.”

John Davis seen sitting by a row of people in court
Former Mississippi Department of Human Services Director John Davis, seen here in court on Sept. 22, 2022, pleaded guilty to state and federal crimes related to the misspending of $77 million in Temporary Assistance For Needy Families funds. Former Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Davis in 2016. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

In an affidavit on Oct. 30, 2023, White acknowledged that she wrote the 2022 impact report cited in Bryant’s lawsuit. “I believe the contents of this article were true when it was written and are true today,” the CEO said. “When I wrote this article, I bore no ill will or malice toward Governor Bryant. I thought I was reporting facts accurately and stating opinions based on facts.”

Bryant amended his original complaint to add Mississippi Today Editor-in-Chief Adam Ganucheau as a defendant after learning that he had written the May 8, 2023, Pulitzer Prize announcement story. In an affidavit on Oct. 31, 2023, the editor said his “goal with writing the Pulitzer Prize announcement story that Mississippi Today published on May 8, 2023, was to describe the reporting as succinctly as possible for people who may not have seen ‘The Backchannel’ series the prior year.”

Ganucheau cited the first two paragraphs of the announcement, including the part in which he wrote that the series “revealed for the first time how former Gov. Phil Bryant used his office to steer the spending of millions of welfare dollars … to benefit his family and friends, including NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre.”

The editor stood by the article. “Those sentences are a completely accurate portrayal of ‘The Backchannel’ reporting—the accuracy of which, again, neither Bryant nor his representatives have questioned to this day,” he said. Ganucheau also denied that Mississippi Today had “malice toward Bryant.”

“We have taken extraordinary care to be fair to him throughout the course of our reporting—much fairer, in fact, than some other news outlets that have independently reported about the former governor’s role in the scandal for larger audiences than ours,” the editor said.

‘The Institutional Belief That Fueled the Defamation’

Though former Gov. Bryant’s lawsuit did not originally name Anna Wolfe as a defendant, the initial complaint did cite remarks she made in a radio interview with former U.S. House Rep. Ronnie Shows, a Mississippi Democrat who served in Congress from 1999 to 2003.

“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 to go after everyone that they should, and everyone who should be held accountable, namely former governor Phil Bryant,” she told Shows on Dec. 16, 2021.

a photo of Nancy New, John Davis and Phil Bryant. Bryant is shaking Hands with New
Both nonprofit operator Nancy New (left) and former Mississippi Department of Human Services Director John Davis (center) have pleaded guilty to state and federal charges over the Mississippi welfare scandal. Investigators have not accused former Gov. Phil Bryant (right), who appointed Davis in 2016, of a crime. Photo courtesy Families First for Mississippi

Bryant’s lawyers pounced on those remarks, claiming in his complaint that “Wolfe heavily implied that Bryant committed a crime” and “expressed concern … that prosecutors would not pursue an indictment and conviction of Bryant.”

In the original complaint, Bryant’s attorney used Wolfe’s words to build a case against Mississippi Today despite not naming her as a defendant at the time.

“White made her false and slanderous accusation to exaggerate Mississippi Today’s accomplishments and to harm Bryant,” the original July 26, 2023, complaint said. “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.”

‘Actual Malice Is Still the Standard’

Dr. Dylan McLemore noted that cases like former Gov. Bryant’s often raise concerns about safeguarding the precedent set in New York Times v. Sullivan, the landmark 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that strengthened press freedoms and made it harder for public officials to sue for defamation or libel. The Sullivan ruling held that to win a defamation case, a public figure must not only prove that a statement is false, but that it was made with “actual malice”—meaning a defendant knew a statement was false when they made it or acted with reckless disregard to its falsity.

“Any defamation case involving a public official and the press is of increased importance because of recent scrutiny applied to the actual malice standard in Times v. Sullivan. A sitting Supreme Court justice and the (likely) Republican nominee for president both think it should be done away with,” McLemore said, referring respectively to remarks Justice Clarence Thomas and former President Donald Trump have made in favor of weaker press protections against libel actions.

Donald Trump listens to Phil Bryant speak at a rally
Former President Donald Trump, seen here at a Nov. 1, 2019, campaign rally with then-Gov. Phil Bryant (right) in Tupelo, Miss., has repeatedly called for the country to loosen its libel laws to make it easier for public figures to sue publications. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Instead of the Sullivan precedent, the media law expert had another case in mind: Hulk Hogan’s successful lawsuit that took down online media website Gawker after the site published a sex tape. Bryant’s lawsuit, McLemore said, is designed to attempt to discredit Mississippi Today’s reporting not just in court, but in the eyes of the public.

“If you build the narrative that this is a media outlet with a distinct political bias that had it out for Phil Bryant then that’s going to color how the reporting is viewed. This is really similar. It’s a much less serious story, but this is how Gawker went down when Hulk Hogan sued Gawker for revealing the sex tape,” the communications professor said. “There was a fairly reasonable argument that what Gawker did, while disgusting for some people, could fit in the bounds of entertainment journalism and could still be protected. But they just came off as such horrible people with an axe to grind, and Hogan’s attorneys did a good job of painting them as people who really wanted to destroy people—and Hogan was one of their enemies who tried to destroy him by acting recklessly.”

McLemore said that explains why Bryant’s complaint pieces together various instances both before and after CEO White’s public remarks about embezzlement that the former governor’s lawyers say are evidence of ongoing institutional bias.

“It’s all about trying to create that impression that they’ve gone off the rails,” McLemore said.

But while Bryant’s legal team may be trying to undermine Mississippi Today’s credibility, the media law expert said he sees no danger for the Sullivan precedent or the Fourth Estate’s First Amendment protections.

“Actual malice is still the standard,” he continued. “And Bryant isn’t arguing he shouldn’t have to meet it; he’s arguing that he can meet it. Mississippi Today is arguing that he can’t. That’s how defamation trials with public officials are supposed to work.”

Editor’s note: After a reader alerted us, we deleted a reference and a link to a website above that seems to operate as a spam farm. The site had discussed the possible effects of the Bryant defamation lawsuit against Mississippi Today on press freedoms, which is still addressed in the above story. We apologize for the initial oversight about the website.

Can you support the Mississippi Free Press?

The Mississippi Free Press is a nonprofit, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) focused on telling stories that center all Mississippians.

With your gift, we can do even more important stories like this one.