Former Gov. Phil Bryant is one of the three main architects of Mississippi’s Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) welfare program that wound up as a debacle during the past three years.
As the new state auditor, appointed by right-wing Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice who intensely hated social welfare and Affirmative Action programs, Bryant was a member of the team that in 1996 developed a policy of constantly punishing and humiliating welfare recipients – mostly Blacks – so they would prefer any kind of work or make-work activity to accepting social welfare assistance.
Fordice, however, was a poor role model in terms of character. He had none. In 1993, he decided to bring women other than his wife into his life, and hinted that he would be divorcing wife Pat, who still resided at the governor’s mansion. Fordice simply built a house for himself and his new sweetheart and dared any of his political opponents to broach the subject in public.
Bryant stepped out from under the shadow of Fordice in 2008 after winning the lieutenant governor’s seat. Bryant then served as the governor from 2012-2020.
The third architect is the semi-retired, mean-tempered Air Force Colonel Don Taylor. Added to the mix as the director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, we then had the chemistry for a truly explosive situation at some point in the future. Mississippi’s horrible prison system, threatened with closure by the federal government at the time, was a parallel institution run similarly to the state’s welfare system.
Although the Mississippi Delta was the area most impacted by the draconian welfare policy, Blacks from all the scattered parts of Mississippi were made to swallow their pride and accept the paltry public assistance made available through President Bill Clinton’s reformed Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), almost overnight turning it into the TANF program.
This was the time, around 2018, that former State Representative Steve Holland of Tupelo called the TANF debacle “the biggest scandal in the history of the state, and nothing’s being done about it.”
The main culprits in the scandal early on were Bryant’s DHS Director John Davis, special education and nonprofits contractor Nancy New, and ex-pro football star Brett Favre. New and Davis copped a plea and confessed their crimes to federal authorities and have been used as witnesses against a long list of other culprits.
Before the documents were made available online, Bryant says in a video introduction, “I’ve been as open and honest as I can be.”
“It’s been a long and difficult year, watching as decades of my public service just dragged through the mud and hoping that it doesn’t affect those close to me. After much thought and discussion with counsel, I’ve made the decision to forego any arguments of executive privilege and just release them all.
“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 the executive privilege that should exist for future governors.”
Bryant left office in 2020, but the stench of the welfare mess continues to hover over his name and image. After a long list of the culprits implicated both Bryant and Favre as linchpins in the corruption, Bryant announced on May 5 that he was preparing to dump every document in his possession related to the welfare scandal on the Internet site bryanttexts.com.
The 480-plus pages of files released by Bryant included some straightforward discussion of two of the most serious problems with the Favre-Bryant TANF talks of using TANF money to fulfill pledges made to the university by Brett Favre and cash investments in a sports medical business called Prevacus.
Although Bryant promised a full disclosure, several investigators familiar with the case say that Bryant left out the most critical texts that link him to Favre, New, and the scandal over a volleyball court at the University of Southern Mississippi, Favre’s and Bryant’s alma mater.
The first mention of the $5 million volleyball stadium is found in a text message dated 5:55 p.m., April 20, 2017.
“Hey, governor. This (sic) Bret Favre…. Deanna and I are building a volleyball facility on campus and I need your influence somehow to get donations and or sponsorships. Obviously Southern has no money and so I’m hustling to get it raised.”
Bryant, just back from Cuba, responds: “Of course all in on the volleyball facility. Y’all have fun and next week come and see me….One thing I know how to do is raise money. ”
Favre asks if he can come to see the governor the next day, since he will be close by. Bryant asks him to wait until the day after, i.e., Wednesday, and says, “I’ll buy you lunch at the mansion.”
Favre then texts back asking if he can delay till Thursday, since wife Deanna can’t make it to Jackson Wednesday. The exchange finally ends with a plan to meet the following week.
Favre closes, saying, “Hey thanks, we really need your help.”
Gov. Bryant now has special request of Favre: “Would you consider playing on my charity softball team at Trustmark Park on Aug. 31? It’s for Special Olympics.”
“Not sure how we can get this facility built for Vball,” Favre writes to Phil. “But you’re the governor and on our side and that’s a good thing. Actually, a great thing.”
Bryant says: “We can do that. Just get me some numbers and I’ll find a way. Maybe USM or the coach can call me and we’ll get on it.”
Favre closes the con: “I’ll have Jon Gilbert the new AD give you everything you need.”
In November 2018, Favre brings up the name of Jacob “Jake” VanLandingham, founder of the experimental drug company Prevacus. He says it’s a good company and only needs investors with about $15 million.
“I invested in a company called Prevacus and it’s a drug that will treat concussions,” he says. “We need help politically to get FDA approval. The developer is a great guy, Jack VanLandingham. Would you mind talking to him if it’s something you think you can help with? And funding to help complete human trial studies.”
Bryant says: “Sure. Give him my cell and have him text or give me a call. Will be glad to help.”
Favre says: “I’ve invested 850k of my own and I believe 100 % in Jake and this drug bit needs funding like now. So obviously any help from you is needed immediately!!!”
Bryant: “Will call him as soon as I can come up for air.” And in the next text: “Great visit with Jake. I am on this.”
On or about Jan. 5, 2019 Favre weighs back in: “On a different note, we are moving forward with Prevacus strongly. Of course, we need your help to get over the hump.”
Bryant: “I am making some calls this week. This is Senator Santorum former presidential candidate. He knows how to work with FDA to get clearance for trials. If you would text him and thank him for his help on our project I will help him and the Doc get together.
“He is a good friend and can get this done in DC.”
Favre: “This is great news.”
WHITE HOUSE CONNECTION
Sometime after Feb. 6, 2019 Bryant writes to Favre: “The WH called and Trump wants you to come to the WH. I told them POTUS needed to take on brain injury as a mission and we would be there.”
“Yes we will. Would love to,” Favre responds.
“Could I get Jared Kushner to call you?” Bryant asks.
“Sure,” Favre says. “Brief me before he does so I know what to expect.”
Favre: “I’m on way and sure won’t have time or privacy enough to talk about this, so I want you to know how much I love Nancy New and John Davis. What they have done for me and Southern Miss is amazing. Her families First is incredible, and she cares.
“We were planning to do workshops and youth clinics in the new Vball facility with her Families First kids. And also, I paid for ¾ of the Vball facility and the rest was a joint project with her and John which was saving me 1.8 million. I was informed today that she might not be able to fund her part. I and we need your help very badly Governor, and sorry to bring this up.
“Her ideas for instilling leadership, workshops for career development and youth sport programs and held within Our Vision of the best facilities possible at USM”
“I will handle that,” Bryant responds. “Long story but had to make a change. But I will call Nancy and see what it will take.”
Bryant implies, without saying it directly, that he had to drop John Davis because of the brewing scandal uncovered by auditor Shad White.
“I’ll really need your help with Nancy and Jake,” Favre says. “I’ll be mowing your lawn for years after this.
“Thanks. I wouldn’t ask if I wasn’t in such a tight position.”
“Meeting with Nancy Thursday at 4 p.m. And we are arranging for a call from the WH,” Bryant says. “This can help with our concussion project.”
SIGNS OF TROUBLE
One of Bryant’s files reads: “New did not tell Governor Bryant that she and Davis had arranged to contribute $4 million in TANF funds to the project. She simply explained that she was helping Favre gain university approval of the project and it appeared the university would ultimately approve it. Just as he had indicated to Favre, Bryant told New that he would assist them in raising private donations and corporate sponsorships to help fund the project.”
The project involved New’s nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center (MCEC) entering a five-year, $5 million lease of the university’s athletic facilities, which it would purportedly use to provide programming to the community’s underserved population. The filing explains that the lease agreement was approved by university attorneys, the Institutes for Higher Learning’s appointed attorney, and the Attorney General’s Office. A USM announcement said the project would be funded by MCEC and private donations.
Favre: “Hey, Governor I have been involved with several of Nancy’s Families First activities and our plan was after completing the Vball construction we were/are building a spectacular indoor facility on campus that we can use for just about anything.”
Bryant: “Meeting with her at 4 p.m. today. Will see how we can help.”
July 19, 2019: Circa 8:07 a.m. “Working with her lots of challenges but we will do our best.”
Favre: “I hope you can pull this off Governor.”
Bryant: “Drawing up some new plays this morning.”
Favre: “Like that analogy. I just am hoping for a first down and not a punt.”
On July 22, 2019, Favre talks about a recruiter on campus and he wants the new facility to be underway and done in a year and a half.
Bryant responds, with a word of caution. “The State Auditor is reviewing all the contracts at DHS which funds Families First. Hope we get legal clearance soon. Don’t want to get anyone in trouble for illegal expenditures. Yep… for … haven’t been invited to come to any event so far. I have asked the AD and president (USM’s Black president who quit) to do so. But nothing has happened.
Favre: “What’s your gut tell you will happen? I have to come up with a lot of money if this doesn’t get clearance.”
Bryant: “It’s the State Auditor that will give the approval. Has to have legal authority. I will check today.”
OBEY THE LAW
State Rep. Greg Holloway of Hazlehurst sits on the House Rules Committee and the Universities and Colleges committee, among others. While witnessing the schemes and plots to circumvent both state and federal laws from inside the belly of the beast, meaning from his seat in the House of Representatives, Holloway wants to see the laws applied to everyone involved, including the former governor and Brett Favre.
The Census shows that over 60,000 people moved out of the 2nd Congressional District between 2010 and 2020. Because of the incidence of poverty in the Delta area, the theft of TANF money has had a devastating impact on the poor people there.
“No one is above the law,” says Holloway. “The rule of law is one of the characteristic institutions of our democracy. And so, the law should work for everyone, whether you are elected or in a position of authority. If you’re not, you still have to follow the law. So, everybody is held responsible when it comes to abiding by the law or breaking the law.”
What should be done to Bryant and Favre? Should they be brought in for an investigation?
“I’ve always said that a person is innocent until proven guilty. I don’t know all the intricacies or details of the right now, but I can tell you that if he is linked to it and is found guilty of the charges he must be brought in and made to pay the penalty for his crimes because no one is above the law. If a person is found guilty, they must be dealt with accordingly.
Adding up the $89 million that came to Mississippi each year with less than 5 per cent of it going to help the poor that adds up to $1.6 billion. Will that money be returned to the people who should have received it in the first place?
“I don’t think so,” Holloway said. “But I do think that the people who are eligible for the social service benefits should get those benefits,” he said. “If the money is recovered, it will probably go back to the general fund, and not to the people it was originally intended for.”
Next week Part 2: The mechanics of the fraud.