Former Mississippi governor sues news site over welfare fraud comments

27 July 2023

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant is suing a local news organization, claiming it defamed him in public comments on the misspending of $77 million of federal welfare funds intended to help some of the poorest people in the U.S.

The lawsuit comes just over two months after Mississippi Today and one of its reporters, Anna Wolfe, won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the welfare misspending. Bryant’s attorney filed a complaint Wednesday in the Circuit Court of Madison County against the outlet’s CEO, Mary Margaret White, and Deep South Today, the outlet’s nonprofit owner.

The lawsuit, which does not appear to challenge the veracity of Mississippi Today’s findings about the welfare scandal, claims White and other employees made “slanderous” or unfounded comments about Bryant when discussing the outlet’s reporting in several public settings.

“Governor Bryant believes he has been libeled by Mississippi Today,” wrote Denton Gibbes, a Bryant spokesperson, in an email. “He is confident in the suit he has brought and, through his attorneys, will convince 12 residents of Madison County of just that.”

Henry Laird, an attorney representing Mississippi Today, said he was still reviewing the lawsuit Thursday afternoon.

At the center of the lawsuit is a 2022 “impact report” published by the news site, a 2023 appearance at a national media conference by White and a Pulitzer Prize award announcement. In each of those instances, the outlet misrepresented Bryant’s connection to the squandered welfare dollars, argued William Quinn II, Bryant’s attorney. The comments amount to a concerted effort to damage Bryant’s reputation, Quinn wrote.

The lawsuit also cited what it asserted were unfair comments in a radio interview given by Wolfe and a podcast episode featuring Wolfe and Mississippi Today Editor-in-Chief Adam Ganucheau. Taken together, Quinn argued the comments amount to a concerted effort to damage Bryant’s reputation.

Mississippi Today had already published an apology from White in May, a week after Bryant threatened a lawsuit, but he has since demanded new retractions. Bryant said in a certified letter May 11 that White made a “false and defamatory” statement about him when, at a journalism conference in February, she said the outlet broke the story that Bryant “embezzled” welfare money.

No criminal charges have been filed against Bryant, and he has said he told the auditor in 2019 about possible misspending of money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families antipoverty program.

Mississippi Auditor Shad White announced in February 2020 that criminal charges were brought against six people, including John Davis, a former Mississippi Department of Human Services executive director who had been chosen by Bryant. The announcement came weeks after Bryant, a Republican, finished his second and final term as governor. Davis and others have pleaded guilty.

Wolfe’s “The Backchannel” series shed light on the misspending of welfare funds intended for poor Mississippians that were instead diverted to the rich and powerful. Prosecutors have said the state’s human services department gave money to nonprofit organizations that spent it on projects such as a $5 million volleyball facility at the University of Southern Mississippi — a project for which retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre agreed to raise money. Favre’s daughter played volleyball at the university.

Favre has also not been charged with a crime, but the Mississippi Department of Human Services, with a new director, filed a civil lawsuit last year against him, along with more than three dozen other people and businesses, to try to recover more than $20 million of the misspent welfare money.

Bryant’s lawsuit was filed on the same day stump speeches for statewide officials began at the Neshoba County Fair, one of the marquee political events of the year. Mississippi’s incumbent Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, who is running for reelection, has called Mississippi Today a “Democratic SuperPAC” and has refused to answer its reporters’ questions at campaign events.

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Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.

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