Expert Commentary

How they did it: Mississippi Today reporter reveals $77 million welfare misspending scheme

Journalist Anna Wolfe uncovered a welfare scandal involving former Gov. Phil Bryant, Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre and former wrestling star Ted DiBiase.

(Mississippi Today)

Last April, the nonprofit newsroom Mississippi Today published its five-part series, The Backchannel, exposing new evidence of former Gov. Phil Bryant’s role in a welfare scandal involving $77 million in misspent funds, based primarily on an extraordinary trove of text messages obtained by investigative reporter Anna Wolfe.

Each story in the series explores “an aspect of Bryant’s entanglement with the welfare agency’s spending — whether the ties to his personal business dealings, his relationships with players in the scheme, patterns in his leadership, agency directives or nepotism,” Wolfe writes in the introductory article.

In October 2021, an independent auditor contracted to examine state welfare spending from 2016 to 2019 found only 40% out of $126 million in examined funds was properly spent. Nearly 19% of Mississippians live in poverty, the highest state rate in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. Bryant was Mississippi governor from 2012 to 2020.

“Bryant’s backchannel maneuvering, uncovered by Mississippi Today’s investigation, raises questions about the governor’s personal agenda and influence over his welfare officials, which auditors say misspent at least $77 million in funds that were supposed to assist the state’s poorest residents,” Wolfe writes in part one of the series.

As a result of the series, U.S. Congressman Bennie Thompson, who represents much of western Mississippi, has urged the U.S. Attorney General and Department of Justice to investigate Bryant, and Thompson has promised to hold hearings. Mississippi Today has also received overwhelmingly positive feedback from their audience.

One current welfare agency employee who oversees grant spending told the news organization, “I’m glad that you didn’t stop because most of this would have never come out if it had not been for you. Everyone I talk to feels that way.”

Wolfe’s investigation began in 2017, when she was a reporter with The Clarion Ledger, a daily newspaper in Jackson with a statewide circulation.

“The state was approving just 1.4% of applicants for welfare,” Wolfe recalls. “I knew that we were still getting federal money every year to provide cash welfare and other supports and services to families in poverty. And I knew that it wasn’t going to direct cash assistance to families, and I wanted to know where the state was spending the rest of the money. So, I started putting in public records requests at that time.”

Through years of filing records requests and building sources, by early 2022 Wolfe had obtained the texts to and from Bryant detailing the former governor’s involvement in how the public funds were used.

Telling the story meant sifting through thousands of messages between Bryant and others, including former NFL quarterback Brett Favre, former professional wrestler Ted DiBiase — known as “The Million Dollar Man” — and other members of the DiBiase family.

“Lots of these text messages were technically public record,” Wolfe says. “They were sent from the governor about government business and therefore should have been retained and considered public. But we did not receive them through public channels.”

The texts, obtained through a confidential source, revealed such a large number of people involved in the scheme that Wolfe decided to create a character guide. It’s an idea she says she got from journalist Curtis Wilkie’s 2010 book “The Fall of the House of Zeus.” 

Also prominently involved in the scandal were John Davis, former head of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, and Nancy New, founder and director of the nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center, through which millions in federal welfare dollars flowed, including $2 million to Prevacus, a pharmaceutical company Favre had invested in.

We recently spoke with Wolfe and Adam Ganucheau, editor in chief of Mississippi Today, who, along with Wolfe, developed overarching narratives for the series. They provided the following tips for journalists navigating similarly complex investigations, including how to land a big interview and what to do when you’re stuck in a battle for public records.

1. Keep checking in with sources, even — and maybe especially — if it feels like the story is done.

Nancy New and her son Zach were arrested in early 2020 following an investigation by a state auditor. Nancy New eventually pled guilty to federal wire fraud-related charges and state bribery charges. Zach New also pled guilty to state and federal charges.

The story could have ended with those arrests.

“I would venture to say right now, looking back on it, the welfare scandal in Mississippi wouldn’t be on anyone’s radar, you wouldn’t have even heard about it, had it not been for what Anna did next,” Ganucheau says.

Following the criminal charges, Wolfe kept developing sources and keeping in touch with existing sources. She did not allow the criminal complaints to mark a convenient bookend to her years-long investigation.

In the end, it was a source with whom Wolfe spent months building trust who shared the trove of text messages that form the backbone of the Backchannel series.

By 2022, Davis, the former director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, was facing state embezzlement and fraud charges. And in recent weeks, Wolfe reported that attorneys representing defendants allegedly involved in the scheme have hinted federal investigators were “eyeing” Bryant, the former governor.

2. If your investigation involves celebrities, use their notoriety as a ‘trapdoor

For Wolfe, this investigation is about millions of dollars in improper welfare payments, and a betrayal of public trust.

At the same time, the investigation revealed how legendary quarterback Favre “received welfare funds for several projects, including funding for his startup pharmaceutical company,” Wolfe and Ganucheau write in a recent follow-up article.

Mississippi Today made a “very conscious decision,” to particularly highlight Favre’s involvement, Ganucheau says.

Favre’s fame, and Wolfe’s reporting, garnered the attention of numerous national sports media outlets, including ESPN and FOX Sports. The reach of sports media in the U.S. meant a story about misspent public welfare funds in one state was able to garner outsized attention.

At the same time, Wolfe, in continuing her reporting and in interviews with sports media, kept sight of the fact that this story, at its heart, is about corruption involving public funds meant to help those in need.

“We thought about Brett Favre as sort of a trapdoor into a story about public assistance in America, and the philosophy that leadership in Mississippi has about people living in poverty,” Wolfe says.

3. Being transparent with sources can yield positive outcomes — like landing a big interview.

Roughly a week before publishing part one of the Backchannel series, Wolfe reached out to a spokesperson for Phil Bryant to offer the former governor the chance to respond, on the record, to the investigation’s findings.

The spokesperson immediately declined. Wolfe says she didn’t need the former governor’s own words in order to publish what she had found, but she “wasn’t satisfied” with the flat-out denial for an interview. So, Wolfe called the spokesperson again and walked through the broad strokes of the investigation’s narrative.

Wolfe recalls her explanation to the spokesperson went like this:

“You’ve essentially got the governor agreeing to accept stock in a company that received $2 million in stolen welfare funds and Brett Favre texting him, ‘Thank you for the money that we just got from the State of Mississippi,’ and a thumbs up from the governor and he’s saying that he can’t accept the stock until after he leaves office and then the day after he leaves office he’s texting the owner of this company, saying ‘Sounds good, where do you want to meet to get this company package together?’

So you really don’t want to say anything?”

On a Saturday afternoon, two days before the first part of the series published, Bryant sat down and answered Wolfe’s questions for three hours.

“Some of what Bryant told our news organization in the interview [is] contradicted by texts he sent,” Wolfe writes in a published condensed version of the interview.

She explains to The Journalist’s Resource that, in this instance, transparency was an effective means to land an important interview.

“I really pride myself in being very transparent as a reporter,” Wolfe says. “So, I’m going to tell you — I mean, obviously I’m not going to share any copy with you — but I’m going to tell you exactly what I’m going to say about you and what you need to respond to.”

4. Stuck in a FOIA battle? Tell your audience about it.

In 2017, Wolfe began making Freedom of Information Act requests to officials at the Mississippi Department of Human Services for information on how grants targeted toward addressing poverty in the state were spent. Instead of information, she got months of stonewalling, culminating in an ethics complaint Wolfe filed against the department in August 2018.

Here is what Wolfe says she would tell other reporters up against institutions that refuse to share public information:

“The first piece of advice I would give is to write, write, write. Write that they’re not responding to you. Write every time that they don’t respond to you. Write exactly what they’re saying in response, pushing back on the kinds of records that they’re giving you. If I could do it over, I would have put more of that out in the public sooner rather than questioning myself in my understanding of what these records are.”

Wolfe adds that, “there was a lot of gaslighting going on. They made me feel like I didn’t know what I was talking about, or what records should exist, and that was one way they were able to conceal what they were doing for so long.”

Sometimes, an agency that does not keep accurate records, or records at all, can play a big part in a story. 

“There was no accounting system,” Ganucheau says. “There was no, sort of, checks and balances to ensure that the spending of this money wasn’t just wild and free. So, it was a combination of, at times, they didn’t want to turn over the records that did exist, and then other times they clearly just didn’t have them as they should have.”

5. When facts are compelling, let them speak for themselves.

The Backchannel series is built around Bryant’s text exchanges and rarely quotes directly from sources outside of those texts. The notable exception is part four, which chronicles the difficulties Mississippi resident Tracy Price has faced in securing various forms of funding, including loans to keep her trucking business running.

But the series as a whole is about the texts themselves, Bryant’s practice of “governing by text,” as Wolfe puts it in part three, and Bryant’s ties to the welfare fraud scheme.

Wolfe did reach out to legal experts to try to report whether laws had been broken, but the case was too “sprawling” for those experts to comment definitively, Ganucheau says.

Instead, the narrative and the findings are a straightforward examination of revelations from the Bryant’s text record.

“I’ve got so much feedback from all kinds of different people, people who might not really read Mississippi Today very often, who really appreciated how straight the story was written,” Wolfe says. “It really just laid out facts and what people had said in their own words. And I think readers and Mississippians really appreciated that about the reporting.”

Read the stories:

For more tips on investigating nonprofits, check out “Covering nonprofits: Questions, answers and tips for following the money,” with tips from Wolfe and Boston College law professor Ray Madoff.

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