Mississippi ex-governor to release texts in welfare scandal

Former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant says he will release all of his text messages related to a welfare fraud investigation, including money spent for a university volleyball arena

Emily Wagster Pettus
Thursday 04 May 2023 20:58 BST

Former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said Wednesday he will release all of his text messages related to a welfare fraud investigation — including money spent on building a university volleyball arena that was pushed by retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre and others with connections to Bryant.

From 2016 to 2019, the Mississippi Department of Human Services misspent more than $77 million that was supposed to help some of the poorest people in the U.S., according to the state auditor. Prosecutors have said the department gave money to nonprofit organizations that spent it on projects such as the $5 million volleyball facility at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.

Bryant, a Republican, finished his second and final term as governor in January 2020. Weeks later, the first criminal charges were filed against six people, including John Davis, a Department of Human Services director chosen by Bryant.

In a video released Wednesday, Bryant repeated what he has said before — that he was the 2019 whistleblower who told the auditor's office about misdeeds at the Department of Human Services.

“The fact is, I did nothing wrong,” Bryant said in the video. “I wasn’t aware of the wrongdoings of others. When I received evidence that suggested people appeared to be misappropriating funds, I immediately reported that to the agency whose job it is to investigate these matters.”

The Mississippi Department of Human Services, with a new director, filed a civil lawsuit last year against Favre, three former pro wrestlers and more than three dozen other people and businesses to try to recover more than $20 million of the misspent money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families anti-poverty program.

No criminal charges have been filed against Bryant, and he is not being sued. Attorneys for some of the defendants in the civil suit have filed court papers that include text-message exchanges between Bryant, Favre and others about spending welfare money on the volleyball arena. Bryant earned a degree from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1977, more than a decade before Favre played football there. Favre’s daughter started playing volleyball there in 2017.

In November, Bryant's attorney cited executive privilege in seeking to block a subpoena that sought more information from the former governor.

In late March, three news organizations — the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, the Mississippi Free Press and Mississippi Today — filed papers opposing Bryant's effort to seal any information he would provide to the court.

“After much thought and discussion with counsel, I’ve made the decision to forgo any arguments about executive privilege on my text messages in this matter and simply release them all,” Bryant said in the video Wednesday. “Frankly, I’m tired of paying legal fees to respond to lawsuits that I’m not a party to in order to protect my privacy and an executive privilege that should exist for future governors.”

Davis pleaded guilty last year in the welfare misspending case, as did Nancy New. She is a Bryant ally who also attended the University of Southern Mississippi and ran a nonprofit organization that received Human Services contracts. As part of her guilty plea, New acknowledged her organization directed welfare money toward the volleyball arena and a pharmaceutical project backed by Favre. No criminal charges have been brought against Favre.

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