By Anna Wolfe,
Mississippi Today “The Backchannel”,
Former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant asked his wife’s friend – whose nonprofit received millions in subgrants from the social service he oversaw – to pay the NFL legend Brett Favre $1.1 million, according to a new court filing.
Nancy New alleges Bryant directed that and other spending, resulting in a massive scandal and what officials called the biggest embezzlement scheme in state history.
Nancy New, a friend of former First Lady Deborah Bryant, and her son Zach New, pleaded guilty to several criminal charges, including bribery and fraud. As part of their plea, a favorable agreement that recommends they not spend time in state prison, the News has agreed to cooperate with an ongoing criminal investigation.
The Mississippi Department of Social Services is also suing Nancy New civilly, asking the court to repay her $19.4 million. The department alleges that New and 37 other defendants, including Favre, violated federal rules when they spent or received money from a federal block grant called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
But Bryant, who had legal responsibility for overseeing departmental spending, remained shielded from official accountability. Mississippi Today, in its investigative series “The Backchannel,” first reported the former governor’s role in the scandal based on a trove of text messages between Bryant, Favre and other key defendants in the case. .
New’s filing marks the first time that Bryant has been directly and publicly accused of wrongdoing by the main defendants in the case.
“Defendant reasonably relied on then-Governor Phil Bryant acting within his broad statutory powers as Chief Executive of the State, including authority over MDHS and TANF, and his extensive knowledge of authorized TANF expenditures for 12 years as State Auditor, four years as a Lieutenant. Governor, and a number of years as Governor before and including the relevant period,” reads New’s response to the MDHS civil complaint filed Monday.
New dismissed the suggestion officials have made throughout the three-year investigation that John Davis, the appointed director of Bryant’s welfare agency, who also faces criminal charges, was a rogue state bureaucrat who independently chose to squander tens of millions of welfare dollars.
The explosive response from Nancy New, her sons Zach New and Jess New, and her nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center, who are also charged in the civil lawsuit, argue that MDHS is more at fault than it is. represented. Court documents name dozens of state officials and employees who acted alongside Davis to perpetuate the scheme — with Bryant named first on the list.
Bryant’s spokesman, Denton Gibbes, denied New’s claim. “She’s pointing the finger at everyone but the Easter Bunny,” Gibbes told Mississippi Today. “It’s just legal bullshit.”
Bryant and the dozens of other state actors are referred to in the filing as “leaders of MDHS.” New’s response also claims that Davis and MDHS executives asked him “to provide $5 million on behalf of the State of Mississippi to Prevacus, Inc. during a meeting with Jake Vanlandingham at Brett Favre’s home. “.
The News ended up paying Prevacus, an experimental concussion drug company, and its subsidiary PreSolMD a total of $2.1 million — payments that were key to the criminal investigation and the charges against the News.
During his final year as governor, Bryant was heavily involved in talks about luring Prevacus to Mississippi, particularly in a new development called Tradition that Bryant had touted. Bryant helped the company find investors, make political connections, and he even agreed to accept shares of Prevacus in January 2020, Mississippi Today first reported in its investigative series, “The Backchannel “. His deal with Prevacus was derailed when agents from the state auditor’s office made arrests soon after.
Recent filings by The News are the first to reveal that state officials and employees actually intended to pay Prevacus $5 million through the nonprofit. The filing does not specifically say which “MDHS executives” directed this investment.
The Mississippi Community Education Center is also challenging the MDHS, saying the welfare agency breached its contract. The nonprofit asks that if it is required to repay any of the funds as a result of the civil lawsuit, it should be able to recover the same amount from MDHS, along with other reparations.
A supplemental motion to stay discovery in the case asks the court to allow Nancy and Zach New to wait until their criminal cases are completed before complying with discovery in the civil suit. Their April plea deal suggests investigators could target other co-conspirators whom the News should help officials pursue.
In the News’ motion to stay, their attorney finds several flaws in MDHS’s allegations.
Primarily, the News argues that TANF rules have historically allowed states to spend the block grant in a variety of ways, including on programs that serve people who earn up to 350% of the poverty line, which is currently $97,125. The state even boasted in its official plans of how it took advantage of the flexibility of TANF dollars.
Only now, according to the News, after many of these “absurd expenses” have been made public, has the state revised its interpretation of TANF to more closely fit activities that help really the poor.
“MDHS has had a love affair with the extreme flexibility of TANF for 25 years. MDHS can no longer divest itself of its contractual obligations simply because it is politically and financially expedient to do so,” the motion reads.
The News has been targeted by investigators and law enforcement, according to filings, without holding accountable those who perpetuated this spending pattern.
“The new defendants will be materially and irreparably harmed if forced to participate in discovery amid giants poised for what promises to be an unrestricted deathmatch,” the motion reads. The new defendants have taken responsibility for their role, but they continue to be pushed into the crossfire by powerful forces vying for political futures and tens of millions of dollars. The state wants to avoid liability and embarrassment, the feds want their money back, and the public wants answers.