Former Gov. Phil Bryant released over 400 pages of text messages and email exchanges on May 5 that appear to link him to the principal suspects in the greatest welfare fraud in Mississippi’s history. He has not yet been indicted in the criminal cases or named as a defendant in the civil complaints now pending before federal and state courts.
Bryant, however, filed notice of a possible lawsuit claiming he has been libeled, dated May 10, 2023, against the CEO of Pulitzer-Prize-winning Mississippi Today, its editor-in-chief, and one of its staff reporters.
Bryant named CEO Mary Margaret White, Editor-in-Chief Adam Ganucheau and reporter Anna Wolfe for alleged “defamatory statement and the subsequent comments” on a February 2023 podcast. Bryant claims the following statement broadcast by White was defamatory:
“We’re the newsroom that broke the story about $77 million in welfare funds, intended for the poorest people in the poorest state in the nation, being embezzled by a former governor and his bureaucratic cronies to be used on pet projects like a state-of-the-art volleyball stadium at Brett Favre’s alma mater.”
Bryant’s lawyers demanded “an immediate retraction of all false and misleading statements” and a public apology for having made them.
State law allows a 10-day period for a news outlet to respond to a libel suit notification.
Judge Faye Peterson issued a gag order the day after Bryant filed his notice of lawsuit against Mississippi Today. Therefore, it is unlikely that Mississippi Today will offer a public response to Bryant’s threat other than the legally prescribed one while the gag order is in place.
SMITH VS. BRYANT
Bryant is facing a lot of legal heat of his own, however, in the case of Austin Garrett Smith, a defendant in the civil action filed by MDHS on May 9, 2022. Smith is the nephew of disgraced former DHS director John Davis and is accused of embezzling in excess of $425,000 of DHS money.
Smith is a little-known figure in the $77 million welfare scandal, but his legal defense team is determined to lay the blame for the outrageous TANF theft at the feet of Bryant and current Gov. Tate Reeves, if Smith is to be prosecuted.
Smith is represented by Attorney Jim Waide, who previously filed a motion requesting the case be dismissed for “failure to join necessary and indispensable parties,” meaning Bryant and Reeves. Waide’s motion, filed on May 11, argues that should the court not grant his motion to dismiss, Reeves and Bryant should be joined as defendants.
Bryant claims that he has not been formally charged with any legal wrongdoing in the alleged theft of $77 million from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program and won’t allow anyone to defame him by claiming he is implicated in the scandal. But Waide says Bryant was the head of the operation and should be held accountable.
“Austin Smith was not allowed to actually determine how the…grant funds were spent,” Waide says. “All of the spending decisions were made by Dr. Laurie Smith, a high-level workforce advisor to Governor Bryant, and was later a high-level education advisor to President Trump.
“Former Governor Phil Bryant, Prevacus, Inc., the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation, the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning of the State of Mississippi and their members, are all participants in the welfare fraud alleged in this Complaint.”
Waide says it is a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause to prosecute Smith while not pursuing Bryant and the others he listed.
“Arbitrarily naming Austin Smith, who has no assets with which to pay a judgment, while not suing politically influential entities… represents arbitrary denial of equal protection of laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution,” he said.
FROM GOVERNMENT TO BUSINESS
Today, Bryant is listed as one of the founding partners of BSS Global, a business “consulting firm” based in Ridgeland that was co-founded by Joseph D. Songy, Bryant’s former chief of staff. Spelled out, BSS is Bryant-Songy-Snell. The BSS team includes Bethany Stanfill (Bryant’s former director of Intergovernmental Services) as a partner, Laurie Todd-Smith (Bryant’s former education and workforce advisor), also a partner, among others. The third founding partner is Bryant’s daughter, Katie Bryant Snell, also an attorney.
There are striking similarities between BSS Global and the public relations firm BGR Group (previously Barbour, Griffith & Rogers), a Washington-based lobbying and communications firm co-founded by Haley Barbour and his associates as early as 1991. Barbour served two terms as Mississippi governor (2004-2012). In 2020, BGR was listed as the third-highest earning lobbying group in the nation’s capital by Washington Business Journal. Bryant was Haley Barbour’s lieutenant governor 2008-2012.
It appears that all the top partners of BSS, except Bryant’s daughter Katie, were also former top officials in the Bryant administration at different points. Prior to BSS Global, Katie served as the Board Attorney for Madison County.
Songy moved up to become Bryant’s chief of staff on Jan. 13, 2016. He had earlier served as the governor’s policy adviser, counsel, and policy director.
NO HELP FOR NEEDY
Emails show that both Phil Bryant and his former education policy adviser Laurie Smith had a hand in channeling welfare funds to the Save the Children Foundation for the first time in 2017. The problem, however, was that of the money allocated for Save the Children, very little was going directly to the children who most needed it.
At the time, the state was denying more than 98 percent of poor families applying for the cash benefits. Laurie Smith moved on to become the director of the Women’s Bureau for the United States Department of Labor in October 2019. She joined BSS Global in 2021.
During Bryant’s second term, nearly $70 million of welfare money funneled through Nancy New’s Mississippi Community Education Council (MCEC) and Christi Webb’s Family Resource Center (FRC) was misspent, according to auditor Shad White.
Actress Jennifer Gardner flashed through Mississippi as Artist Ambassador for Save the Children in 2016 or 2017. She met an activist grandmother, Tracie Price, in Mound Bayou.
In 2017, Garner met Bryant at a Republican Governor’s function and told him of her encounter with Price. Bryant took a selfie with Garner and sent a message to the anxious grandmother. That was the end of the exchange.
Mississippi Today reported that despite the increased need for assistance during the advancing COVID-19 pandemic, Price never received aid of any kind.
“Jennifer came to my house,” said Price. “But I have gotten nothing from anybody since then. I have not received a thing. Nothing. I had my grandkids here and I was losing my house and everything. They never reached out to me.” And Price never received a response from her letters and direct messages, Mississippi Today reports.
The texts released by Bryant on May 5 show that toward the end of December 2018, the monetary interests shifted from Brett Favre’s volleyball stadium at USM to getting investors and funding for drug manufacturer Prevacus and lucrative markets for its healing cream. When the promised money starts flowing from Nancy New’s operation to Prevacus, it’s like Christmas all over again.
Nancy New notifies Prevacus CEO Jack, or Jake, VanLandingham on Dec. 30, that she “had a good meeting yesterday. John (Davis, DHS director) and I will have meet with guv. Soon.”
Jake asks, “Was John interested? I have plenty of company docs to share.”
Nancy: “He was,” says Nancy. “He wants to know more. We did not have much time alone as some others joined lunch.” “If you’re back in Hattiesburg Wed., maybe I can arrange an introduction call between you and John. I have meetings with John and Health and Human Services. May be meeting with gov. too.”
Brett Favre becomes the point man and the linchpin between Nancy New and the people running Prevacus.
On Jan. 2, 2019. Nancy New to Jack VanLandingham: “Hey are you in Hattiesburg yet?”
Jack: I’ll be there in about 50. Out. Hey, what’s your eta (expected time of arrival)?
NN: Almost to Brett’s—in 15 minutes.
Jack: Thank you so much for believing in us. I’d like to get you some shares. Would 50K work for now?
NN: I’m glad to help. I was real happy that I got John to meet too. Thank you for involving us. It’s not necessary. I would help you anyway, but thank you. That is very nice.
Over the weekend of Sunday, Jan. 12 and Jan. 13 (Mon.) Nancy New and Jack VanLandingham remain concerned over receiving the document and email. Money may be involved here.
Then on Jan. 12, NN asks Jake: “Please resend the document that you sent earlier this week. Send to: (she gives two email addresses)
NN: Anything yet?
Jack: Got it I just sent. Also sent from my wife’s account.
NN: Got it. Came from Stephanie’s (Jack’s wife’s) account.
On Jan. 15, the release of the money for investment in Prevacus is arranged. Nancy New relays the news to Jack, the CEO of Prevacus.
Jan. 15 (9:15 a.m.). Jack: Checking in. Had a great meeting with Peter Fos yesterday. He’s oversight for Joe Canizaro at Tradition. Great stuff.
NN: Great. I should get the approval to release a payment tomorrow afternoon or no later than Thursday. I think we’re about to move forward. It’s exciting.
Jack: So awesome. Let me know (lmk) when you’ll need wiring instructions. Ytb.(You’re the best).
On Jan. 21, 2019. 10:04 a.m.. Jack writes: “Check has arrived. Time to get to work.”
April 2. Jack asks NN if she can fast track (another) 500K “to get this completed. It’s more $$$ up front, but saves us money in the end and gets us back to MS for the human trials faster.”
April 4. NN: “Sorry for the delay. But we’ve been fighting challenges for the last few days.” She complains about this being a very difficult legislative session.
NN. At 845 p.m.: Still looking good. Takes a little longer. Government shutdown isn’t helping. But you’ll hear from me tomorrow for sure.
Money issue continues to be the major concern as reported in the text messages. On July 6, Jack addresses Nancy New’s son Zack directly about the need to get more investors “to get in on the pre-game cream.”
Jack: We are seeking 380K right now. I think we can get it over next two weeks. But everyday matters if we are going to get it manufactured before football kickoff.
Zack (July 9) says: No luck yet, but I’m working on them. (On Aug. 16) Will the extra we put go towards stock?
Jack says: (Aug. 20) Sales launch late October or early November.
Zack: Awesome. Let me see if we can do some more. I can’t remember if we did 250 or 350 last time.
Jack writes: 250K. Later says: Prevacus has three assets. The Ida nasal spray post-concussion, pre-game crème and a drug for Niemann pick. But your 250K originally spreads your ownership over the three assets. This 250K is for direct ownership in the pre-game cream only. Make sense?
Zack: Absolutely does. Sorry it was taking me a minute. Got it now.
Jack: With the revenue share, it’d be like owning 3 percent or better.
Zack: Got you. That is great so we could make money of the 20mm. That would be great.
Jack: Exactly. We have early interest from CVS and have hired an international sales team for online sales. Brett has been lining up medical teams both college and pro.
The texts related to the stock sales and investments in Prevacus between Jack VanLandingham, Nancy New, and her son Zack continue until September 24, 2019.
Nancy and Zack New were arrested and brought into federal court on multiple criminal charges. Four other accomplices were also arrested and pled guilty, including former DHS John Davis. Both federal and state prosecutions are slowly getting under way. Most recently Ted DiBiase Jr. was arrested and brought into court on multiple criminal charges in federal court.
While Brett Favre will face civil charges in the misuse of TANF funds, he is not yet criminally charged. Former governor Phil Bryant has not yet been charged with either civil or criminal offenses in any of the incidents.
Second District Congressman Bennie Thompson, nevertheless, has called on the U. S. Attorney General to investigate Bryant’s role in the misused TANF funds and his role in relaying TANF money to Brett Favre.
“This gross misuse of TANF dollars must elicit a review of former Governor Phil Bryant’s involvement,” Thompson said in his July 15, 2022 letter to the AG. “Such an investigation should also examine the intolerable activity of retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre and how his actions were aided by Governor Bryant.”