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Phil Bryant speaks at a podium
Former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant filed a lawsuit over a Sports Illustrated story on May 9, 2024, alleging defamation over a May 2023 report on the Mississippi welfare scandal. The former governor alleged that the story portrayed him as part of a conspiracy with Brett Favre and others to misuse millions in welfare dollars. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Ex-Gov. Phil Bryant Sues Over Sports Illustrated Story on Welfare Scandal, Alleging Defamation

Former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant is accusing Sports Illustrated’s former publisher and a former reporter of defaming him in a new lawsuit over a May 2023 report about Mississippi’s sprawling welfare scandal and his connection to retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre.

The federal lawsuit, which Bryant’s attorney filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi on Thursday, specifically names Sports Illustrated’s former publisher, The Arena Group, and reporter Michael Rosenberg.

The complaint says that the story, written by Michael Rosenberg, “alleges a conspiracy involving former Governor Phil Bryant” and other players connected to the welfare scandal.

Former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant filed this complaint on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi on Thursday, May 9, 2024.

Between 2017 and 2019, former Mississippi Department of Human Services Director John Davis—a Bryant appointee—directed tens of millions in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families welfare dollars away from Mississippi’s poorest and toward illicit causes that often favored wealthy sports celebrities. He and Nancy New, a nonprofit director, are among several people who have pleaded guilty to state and federal charges over the scheme.

Favre was among the sports celebrities who benefited. He received $1.1 million in TANF funds for which he was supposed to record ads and give motivational speeches; $5 million in TANF funds went to build a volleyball stadium at the University of Southern Mississippi, his alma mater where his daughter was playing volleyball at the time; and $1.7 million in TANF funds went to Prevacus, a pharmaceutical company for concussion drugs that he was heavily invested in.

But Favre has long denied knowing the money came from welfare funds, and he has returned the $1.1 million he personally received to the state since 2020 (with some prodding from the state auditor), minus interest. Prosecutors have not charged Favre with a crime, though he is a defendant in the State’s civil case designed to claw back misspent funds.

‘Bryant Worked Relentlessly’

Bryant has similarly long denied any involvement in the welfare scandal beyond alerting the auditor to the theft; prosecutors have not charged him with a crime, and he is not a defendant in the civil case, either. Text messages that became public in court documents in 2022 show Favre repeatedly sought Bryant’s help getting funding for the USM volleyball stadium and for Prevacus, but there is no evidence that Bryant ever directed welfare funds to Favre nor that he knew Davis and New had done so.

Michael Rosenberg’s May 18, 2023, report in Sports Illustrated described Nancy New as “a 67-year-old grandmother with no known criminal record.”

“New was mostly following orders from Davis, the welfare chief. Davis largely operated on behalf of Mississippi’s then-governor, Republican Phil Bryant. And Bryant worked relentlessly to please the state’s most famous athlete, NFL legend Brett Favre,” the story stated.

a photo of Nancy New, John Davis and Phil Bryant. Bryant is shaking Hands with New
Former Gov. Phil Bryant (right) appointed Mississippi Department of Human Services Director John Davis (center) in 2016, but has denied knowing that the director and nonprofit director Nancy New (left) were misspending millions in welfare funds. New and Davis both pleaded guilty to state and federal charges after their 2020 arrests. Photo Courtesy Families First for Mississippi

Bryant’s complaint took specific issue with that section of the report.

“Bryant did not instruct anyone to use TANF funds to construct the USM volleyball facility. Bryant did not instruct anyone to invest TANF funds in Prevacus. The quoted statement is false and defamatory,” says the complaint, which Bryant’s attorney William M. Quin II filed on Thursday, May 9, 2024.

This is not the first time Bryant has sued a publication over its welfare scandal reporting. Last year, the former governor sued state nonprofit publication Mississippi Today and its umbrella organization, Deep South Today, in state court. At first, that lawsuit focused on promotional material and the CEO’s since-retracted public claim that Bryant “embezzled” welfare funds. But earlier this year, he also added Mississippi Today reporter Anna Wolfe as a defendant in the lawsuit, citing her reporting, and Editor-in-Chief Adam Ganucheau.

The governor’s complaint against Sports Illustrated claims that the Sports Illustrated story “repackages similarly defamatory statements published by Deep South Today d/b/a Mississippi Today, its reporter Anna Wolfe, its editor-in-chief Adam Ganucheau, and its chief executive officer Mary Margaret White on various occasions during the past few years.”

While White has apologized for her remarks, Mississippi Today attorneys have maintained that the publication and its reporting did not defame Bryant. The former governor’s defamation lawsuit against Mississippi Today is ongoing with Bryant urging the court to force the publication to turn over information that could reveal sensitive reporting information, including the reporter’s sources.

Bryant Says He ‘Did Not Plot’

Former Gov. Bryant’s complaint against Sports Illustrated cites 16 additional passages from its report that the governor’s lawyer says are false and defamatory. “Illegal behavior was so institutionalized that some perpetrators showed no fear of getting caught,” one passage says, noting that Favre’s business partner “referred to Bryant as part of the ‘team.’”

The passage says that, as the scheme unraveled, “the most powerful players started outmaneuvering the others” and that “people who plotted with one another plotted against one another—a theme that continues to play out in both ongoing civil and criminal cases.” Bryant’s complaint says that “he did not plot with Davis, New, Favre or anyone else regarding illegal behavior.”

Closeup of NFL quarterback Brett Favre
Brett Favre has repeatedly denied knowing the funds he received came from welfare dollars since the welfare scandal broke in 2020. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Another passage in Rosenberg’s report describes the events after Davis’ ousting in 2019. Bryant had fired the MDHS director after the deputy director, Jacob Black, reported possible illegal activity at MDHS; the then-governor turned the information over to the state auditor, which kicked off the investigation that would unravel the welfare scandal.

“With Davis out, the scheme was down to three principals: Phil Bryant, the veteran pol. Brett Favre, the relentless competitor. Nancy New, the naïeve pleaser,” the Sports Illustrated story says.

Once again, Bryant’s complaint took issue with those characterizations.

“Bryant did not participate in a scheme to do anything illegal or unethical with Favre, New, or anyone else. The statement is false and defamatory,” the complaint says. “Moreover, Nancy New was undoubtedly not a ‘naïve pleaser.’ She is a disgraced felon who stole millions of dollars from the State of Mississippi.” The document points to the numerous state and felony charges she pleaded guilty to, including counts of bribery of a public official, fraud against the governor, wire fraud and a single RICO count.

“It is apparent that in crafting the Article, Rosenberg relied on information provided to him by Nancy New or individuals aligned with her and disregarded a mountain of objective evidence proving Bryant did not direct TANF funding to the USM volleyball facility project or Prevacus.”

The governor’s complaint also rejected allegations in the story that he had set a “trap” to make “it look like New was the perpetrator, Favre the accomplice and Bryant the honest occasional advisor” if the scandal unraveled. Bryant also rejected the story’s assertion that he had “indicated he would accept Prevacus stock,” but “he either ran out of time or suddenly changed his mind before the arrests.”

“Bryant never indicated he would accept Prevacus stock. He did not run out of time to do so and did not suddenly change his mind,” the complaint says. “This statement is false and defamatory.”

Arrests Precluded Prevacus Stock Talks

Text messages former Gov. Bryant released last year do show that Brett Favre’s business partner, Prevacus founder Jake VanLandingham, offered to give the governor 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.

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.”

‘It’s Not So Easy Under Oath’

Former Gov. Bryant’s complaint against Sports Illustrated demands “special damages including, but not limited to, past and future income losses, impairment of reputation and standing in local, state, national, and business communities, personal humiliation, mental anguish, suffering, and emotional distress.” It specifically says “the defamation caused Bryant to lose” over $480,000 from nine clients in businesses he’s associated with. His wife, Deborah Bryant, is also a party to the suit and is demanding consortium damages, which refer to damages someone can incur as a result of damages against their spouse. 

Under state law, plaintiffs must send notices to potential defendants at least 10 days before filing a defamation lawsuit. 

“Governor Bryant hopes Sports Illustrated and its reporter will retract, correct, and apologize for the false and defamatory statements in the article,” Bryant attorney’s attorney, Billy Quin, told the Mississippi Free Press in a statement on April 11 after sending letters to Sports Illustrated demanding public apologies and retractions. “If they refuse, we will see them in court.”

Sports Illustrated has not issued any apologies or corrections since receiving the demand letters, however, and the original May 2023 story remains on the publication’s website unaltered.

“In the Article, Rosenberg writes, ‘Anyone can blame the media in a press release. It’s not so easy under oath.’ This is true,” Bryant’s complaint says. “It is also true that desperate media can recklessly publish defamatory and malicious lies to salvage the reputation of a once-great publication. Rosenberg and his former employer will discover the difficulty of defending these lies with persuasive evidence under penalty of perjury.”

Neither Rosenberg nor Sports Illustrated responded to requests for comment from the Mississippi Free Press.

Read more of our coverage of the Mississippi welfare scandal here.

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