Since the establishment of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program in 1996, a very close – frequently unhealthy – collaboration has existed between Mississippi’s governors, the state auditors, and the carefully chosen director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services (DHS), the agency in control of the infamous welfare program.
In 1996, Governor Kirk Fordice (1992-2000) and his newly appointed state auditor, Phil Bryant – Fordice’s self-described “best friend” in the state legislature – took hold of TANF, the creation of President Bill Clinton, and modified it to fit Mississippi’s notions of how a public welfare system should be run.
Fordice, a major government building contractor from Vicksburg, disliked the federal rules on minority contracts and affirmative action programs he had to follow to retain his multimillion dollar contracts with the U. S. Corps of Engineers.
“Republican Governor Kirk Fordice is known for the vehemence of his anti-government views,” the New York Times reported October 16, 2007. “And with Black families making up more than 80 percent of the caseload, the (proposed) welfare reductions inevitably remind critics of the state’s difficult racial past.”
Phil Bryant, who was elected to the state legislature in 1991, the same year that Fordice won his governor’s race, had campaigned alongside Fordice in a number of conservative locations, and the two hit it off like two peas in a pod.
State Auditor Steve Patterson, a Democrat, was forced to resign in the face of charges of forgery, fraud, and tax evasion. Fordice appointed Bryant to the auditor’s office in November 1996.
In 1995, Fordice had already hired his old friend, retired Army Colonel Don Taylor, to head the DHS.
Fordice made it known in 1995 that he would gladly accept a cut in federal welfare money under the Block Grant program “so long as he is freed of Federal regulations on how to spend it,” the New York Times reported.
“Fordice and the leaders of his Department of Human Services believe strongly that the government should use punitive measures to change the behavior of welfare recipients,” said the Times. They put together a “Work First” program and ran it like a boot camp or prison.
Fordice said he believed young Black mothers, who were 80 percent of the unwed mothers in Mississippi at the time, deliberately got pregnant to collect $24 a month in extra welfare benefits. He called for limiting welfare benefits to two years, “the absolute outside limit.”
Another motive for kicking people off the welfare rolls was that when the state reduced the number of TANF recipients, that money could be used for other purposes.
“Almost all the Delta’s recipients are Black, and most businesses are run by whites.” (NYT, Oct. 10, 1997.)
Analyzing the situation in Washington County, the Times said: “Of the 1,299 Work First clients in Washington County, only 61 got subsidized jobs and just 15 percent kept them – about 1 percent of the caseload.”
Under the “Work First” notion, the state would “seize welfare and food stamp benefits from recipients and offer them as subsidies to employers who hire the recipients.”
“The state gives companies the equivalent of $3.25 an hour, and the employers kick in $1 an hour to bring pay up to minimum wage,” the New York Times report said.
“Mothers with children over 3 years of age are required to participate,” it was reported. These mothers were required to accept any position they were offered.
“If they refuse to participate, they and their children are removed from the welfare rolls,” the Times said in its Oct. 23, 1995 edition. “After six months, the state’s subsidy ends and employers are expected to hire the welfare recipients permanently. If they do not, the state seeks another.”
Taylor retired from DHS in 2008 after serving two distinct terms – 1995 to 2000 under Fordice, and 2004-2008 under Haley Barbour.
Succeeding Fordice as governor, Ronnie Musgrove (2000-2004) displayed a genuine interest in making the new welfare system work for Mississippians.
Musgrove sought to bring back a measure of humanity and accountability to the state’s welfare programs. He brought in Janice Broome Brooks as DHS director for two years, and Thelma Britain for the final two years of his administration.
Musgrove urged Congress to renew the TANF provisions to their prior levels.
“The Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) has been cut dramatically over the past few years, indicating a weakening of the historic state-federal partnership to serve needy Americans,” he said. “In 1996, as part of the historic welfare reform agreement, Congress agreed to provide the states $2.38 billion each year for SSBG. Since that time, funding has been chipped away little by little.”
Musgrove also signed into law the Mississippi Adequate Education Plan, guaranteeing equitable financing for every school district in the state, although it took many years before the goal was achieved. The MAEP program has floundered after years of Republican resistance.
He established the Children’s Health Insurance Program and set up the Advantage Mississippi Initiative that brought major employers like Nissan with its $1.4 billion plant in Canton and 5,300 new jobs.
BARBOUR MOVES IN
Haley Barbour’s sudden appearance in the Mississippi governor’s race in 2003 gave rise to all sorts of rumors and suspicions about why he had come back to Mississippi. The former chair of the Republican National Committee and White House Director of Political Affairs under Ronald Reagan, Barbour was also chief partner of the second largest lobbying group in Washington, BGR Group. Barbour had his reasons – perhaps millions of them – to come back to Mississippi and run the government.
Taking office in January 2004, he set about to take over the DHS. He would also spur the legislature into passing laws that would not allow class action lawsuits at the state level and he rehired Don Taylor as the director of DHS.
The Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative (MLICCI) reported that between 2003 and 2010, roughly half of the applicants to the state’s TANF program were rejected. And by 2011, the rejection rate was at 89 percent.
Besides consolidating the Republican stranglehold on state government, Barbour did accomplish several milestones that appear to have been outside of his own self-interest.
Barbour cut Mississippi’s deficit of $709 million in half in fiscal 2004 by sharply reducing spending on social services – i.e., denying services to most TANF applicants. This included dropping 65,000 people from Medicaid, while increasing the percentage of Medicaid generic drug prescriptions. Toward the end of his second term, he also set the stage for financing and building the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, locating it in downtown Jackson rather than on the Tougaloo College campus.
Barbour, however, was at his most outrageous when it came to handling large sums of money that he treated like a windfall rather than the emergency disaster recovery money that it was. His niece-in-law, Rosemary Ramirez Barbour, who had no known business experience, was awarded a $299,376,647 FEMA contract for trailer home maintenance after Hurricane Katrina. When questioned about it, Barbour issued a statement that he was completely unaware of the contract.
Of the $5.4 billion Katrina recovery funds sent to the state in 2005 to replace lost housing, Barbour spent an estimated $600 million to expand the ports on the Gulf but was forced by HUD to spend only $130 million on housing. And there was never a full accounting of the balance of the $5.4 billion.
Bloomberg News accused Barbour of personally profiting from Hurricane Katrina recovery funds. BGR lobbied the state for major contracts and Barbour was still getting his salary from BGR, presumably with it placed in a blind trust.
“The governor’s own former lobbying firm, which he says is still making payments to him, has represented at least four clients with business linked to the recovery,” Bloomberg reported Aug. 16, 2007.
Meanwhile, Phil Bryant won election for two full terms as state auditor and in 2007 won as lieutenant governor. When Haley Barbour completed his two terms as governor, Bryant succeeded him in 2012.
Since the TANF story broke in Jan. 2020, Phil Bryant and ex-football pro Brett Favre, both alumni of USM, have been linked to the nearly $100 million rip-off of the state’s welfare coffers. Favre was allegedly given $1.3 million as compensation for some never presented motivational speeches. Bryant, while still governor, allegedly leaned on John Davis, director of DHS, to also funnel unspecified millions through Nancy New’s Mississippi Community Education Center (MCEC) to various friends and associates. Some of this money was directed toward financing a company called Prevacus, for which Phil Bryant allegedly would be awarded a “package” after his term of governor ended in January 2020. That project was brought to an abrupt end once the news about it was circulated almost daily in news media across the nation.
“In his last year as governor, Bryant was heavily involved in discussions about luring Prevacus to Mississippi, specifically to a new development called Tradition that Bryant had touted,” Mississippi Today reported. “Bryant helped the company find investors, make political connections, and he even agreed to accept stock in Prevacus in January of 2020…. His deal with Prevacus was derailed when agents from the state auditor’s office made arrests shortly after.”
Gov. Reeves fired investigating attorney Brad Pigott as he began to uncover the details of Bryant’s link to the USM volleyball scandal. Pigott was preparing to subpoena all the principal suspects in the scandal, but Reeves fired him for allegedly overstepping his authority.
Pigott revealed that Nancy New and her two sons, all alumni of USM, used their nonprofit MCEC as the clearinghouse for $5 million of TANF money so the USM Athletic Foundation could build a volleyball court on campus. Nancy New was a member of the athletic foundation.
More revelations of Phil Bryant’s involvement in the misuse of TANF money were found in the messages and interviews reported by Mississippi Today and other media.
Bryant’s great-nephew Noah McRae was given a spot at the New Summit School when he was expelled from his public school for bad behavior. He was also expelled from the New School, was arrested for some criminal activity, yet somehow wound up on the payroll of the New School, with the money being diverted from TANF funds, presumably at the request of Bryant.
Noah McRae, at last report, was in prison on charges of car theft and burglary, among other crimes.
In another Bryant link to the TANF money, Mississippi Today reporter Anna Wolfe said that Bryant’s wife, Deborah Bryant, and State Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam had worked jointly in setting up the Family First Initiative of the Commission on Children’s Justice prior to Beam’s appointment to the Supreme Court. The Mississippi Supreme Court formed the Commission on Children’s Justice in 2006 and assigned it the task of developing a statewide comprehensive approach to improving the child welfare system.
Some confusion enters here because Nancy New, also a friend of Deborah Bryant, set up her nonprofit Families First for Mississippi in 2017. It purportedly “teaches an assortment of classes about families and parenting with an innovative ‘whole family’ approach.” New’s organization was the recipient of a large amount of TANF money. Reporter Wolfe says Gov. Bryant was belligerent when reporters questioned him about the TANF money in this case.
Besides being in charge of the accounts when the TANF program was launched, Bryant, as governor, became more and more entangled in the web of deceit and fraud.
Bryant, it is fairly clear, helped to facilitate TANF funds sent to the University of Southern Mississippi. And he appears to have facilitated the funds to pay for a stay at a care facility and employment for his great nephew Noah McRae – through his wife Deborah’s family – with money provided by John Davis and Nancy New.
REEVES ON THE HOT SEAT
Although Tate Reeves and Phil Bryant deny any connection or knowledge of the illegal use of TANF funds, a growing number of investigators are probing the web of deception, uncovering facts that show the state’s chief executive has had knowledge and participation in the case.
The scandal surrounding the theft of $77 million in federal TANF funds showed that the program was not to be allowed to fulfill its lawful purpose.
The Jackson Advocate reported in its August 18-24 edition that Reeves used his influence to secure $1.3 million of TANF money for his personal trainer of 15 years, Paul Lacoste.
“Reeves…remains quiet on recent reports in the national media alleging that he was involved in the theft of $77 million in welfare money sent to the state by Washington under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program,” the Advocate reported.
“Before he was fired, Attorney Brad Pigott had discovered a paper trail linking Reeves to a $1.3 million contract Lacoste had obtained with DHS. The federal money was provided to help the state’s working poor, said Pigott.”
Reeves tends to assume a mean and aggressive stance against the people of Mississippi whenever they question him about his alleged misuse of government resources for a nonpublic cause. He has vowed to the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that he will do all in his power to dismantle government institutions and to ignore some government obligations to service public needs and demands. ALEC is one of a host of highly politicized organizations dedicated to dismantling government and public institutions. It is a part of the group that calls itself the State Policy Network.
The aim of this group, as one of its best-known members, Grover Norquist, said years ago: “We hope to reduce government to the size of a baby and then drown it in the bathtub.”
Gov. Tate Reeves is an avowed acolyte of this group. Mississippi Speaker of the House Phillip Gunn served as ALEC’s national chairman in 2019-2020, and State Sen. Josh Harkins is a former ALEC state chairman.
As recently as August 23, Reeves found himself the target of a lawsuit accusing him of diverting public funds to private schools.
“In April, Reeves signed two bills,” the suit filed by ACLU and the Mississippi Center for Justice reads. “One created a grant program to help private schools pay for water, broadband, and other infrastructure projects. The other allocated the $10 million of federal money for the program, starting July 1, 2022.”
Reeves’ bill allows grants of up to $100,000 “to any in-state school that is a member of the Midsouth Association of Independent Schools and that is accredited by a state, regional, or national organization.
“The parameters of the program exclude public schools from applying for the infrastructure grants,” the complaint says. “Section 208 of the Mississippi Constitution prohibits use of public money for any school that is not “a free school.”
The governor contends that the money is not coming from any public school funds, but rather from the $1.8 billion included in the American Rescue Plan, federal money still unspent or not allocated to public projects or recovery of losses from the pandemic.