A Q&A with DHS Director Bob Anderson

The new director of Mississippi’s welfare agency says the state should look at increasing benefits and expanding eligibility for cash assistance within its TANF fund. But first thing’s first: making sure contractors aren’t misspending it.

BY ANNA WOLFE | July 22, 2020

Bob Anderson had recently taken over the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit inside the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office when he got a call from Gov. Tate Reeves’ office, just weeks into the new governor’s administration.

The staffer wanted the longtime investigator to visit his office to talk “about an agency,” Anderson said, chuckling as he recalled that the staffer wouldn’t say which one. “Just come up to the governor’s office,” the caller said.

The governor was tapping Anderson to lead the state’s more than $1 billion, mostly federally-funded welfare and social services agency called the Mississippi Department of Human Services, or DHS — which had become the subject of one of the largest public embezzlement cases in state history in early February.

“Okay, DHS. The DHS where the executive director just got indicted — that DHS?” Anderson replied.

The State Auditor’s Office, which investigated the case, has accused former director John Davis of fraudulently misusing dollars from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and helping a nonprofit embezzle millions more. He and five others who were indicted in early February and pleaded not guilty still await trial.

The governor’s office told Anderson they needed someone who had a history of rooting out fraud and whose integrity had never been questioned: He came in at the top of the list.

Massive alleged theft aside, the agency is also plagued by complaints from clients seeking their help, stringent state policies that make Mississippi’s assistance programs the most meager in the country and a historic disregard of any outcome measurements that would show if the agency is actually helping move people out of poverty.

In March, Anderson took over for Jacob Black, Davis’ former second-in-command, who was serving as interim director while Reeves found a replacement. Black left the agency shortly after that to take a position as a staff officer for the Mississippi Division of Medicaid, according to his LinkedIn account.

Since, Anderson has juggled the agency’s response to the COVID-19 crisis while switching up his staff and ushering in greater controls to prevent abuse within the agency in the future.

In divergence from any of his recent predecessors, Anderson said he would also like state leadership to consider increasing Mississippi’s TANF benefits, which are currently capped at $170 a month for a family of three, and expanding eligibility to serve a greater population of vulnerable Mississippians.

Mississippi Today sat down with Anderson on July 10, a little over four months after Reeves appointed him to his position, to discuss the agency’s operations and his vision for the future of its programs. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mississippi Today: What’s the most surprising thing that you’ve learned since you took over?

Anderson: You know, I knew that this agency covered kind of a wide berth of programs but the sheer breadth of what we do was probably the biggest eye opener. Because my frame of reference with DHS in the past was, you know, it’s the welfare agency. To some extent, it is, but there was another office for years called the governor’s office of federal state programs and some of the programs we now administer kind of got merged into DHS. So, it’s a very broad group of services that we offer. That was a little bit surprising.

I guess the next thing was that the agency had been run with so little — I mean, there’s no other way to say it — so little real accountability. An agency of this size, it just seemed to be amazing how few checks and balances were in place.

That was the sense that I had. How did that happen and has it always been like that or did it get sloppier over time?

An agency always kind of takes its direction from the top. Let me say, first of all, I don’t know whether there had always been a lack of accountability and compliance and rules and regs, so to speak, but when John came on board he started setting aside some of those, and I think it did during the time he was here.

And that’s why we’ve moved completely 180 degrees in the other direction. I mean, one of the first things I did when I got here was I said, “Who’s our compliance officer?” And we didn’t have one. We not only didn’t have a compliance officer, we didn’t have a compliance officer to speak of.

And that was surprising to you?

For an agency this size that was really surprising to me. And the first thing I did was create a compliance office and bring a lady named Sandra Griffith over from Medicaid to be chief compliance officer.

For someone who doesn’t know the inside of a state agency, can you describe what that person really does on a day-to-day basis? Not just what their goals are, but physically, what do they actually do?

I’ll give you kind of a litany of things that she’s looking at. We have seven different programmatic areas and each of them has a state plan that we submit to our federal oversight agency. She’s reviewing all of those state plans for two reasons, 1) to make sure it’s up to date because a state plan needs tweaking from year to year to make sure it’s consistent with all the federal guidelines — regs and the statutes — for each of those programs.

Looking at the state plans, we have policies and procedures. There hadn’t been any real coordination among the different divisions, everybody was kind of siloed … They’re looking at how the policies and procedures, say, in Community Services Division impact, if they do, the Division of Aging and Adult Services or how the child care policies impact folks who are in our TANF program and just looking at all the policies and procedures, primarily to make sure they’re in harmony with each other, and they’re not in conflict with each other. Because one of the goals I have is for us to get past this kind of silo mentality and collaborate across and cooperate across all of the divisions.

It’s sort of funny because that’s exactly what John Davis was saying that he was doing, you know, this “holistic approach to the family.” I’ve heard so much of this stuff from John Davis, it’s hard to know what it looks like and how to see that it’s really happening.

Right, well, I don’t know John. I didn’t have any involvement with John, you know, he was before my time, obviously. What we’re doing now is real. We’re not just talking about it. The compliance officer is reviewing every policy, every procedure, she’s actually implemented a new standard operating procedure guideline for every division. We’re not just giving lip service to that.

The chief compliance officer is a senior management team member. She reports directly to me because I value compliance and integrity and we’re building a new culture of compliance within this agency. You know, I take my reputation for integrity very seriously and it’s never gonna be for sale and I’m certainly not going to give it away. And in order to model that integrity, it has to start with me and then we teach that so that it trickles down and permeates the whole agency.

How familiar are you with complaints of this agency over the last several years with respect to child care and TANF? Do you know what people have been saying about this agency, the type of information they’ve been trying to get from this agency, so you can rectify it?

I know some of that. I learn more stuff everyday, but I know two primary complaints that we get. And they were fair complaints, I’ll admit that. We don’t do a great job at customer service. We’re still getting regular complaints even though we have, I think, during the COVID time particularly, we have gone out of out way to provide as much customer service as we can to make our services, our benefits, as available as possible. Even though county offices were closed, we went to telework so that our caseworkers and our eligibility workers could still have contact with the population that we serve. So customer service, I know, we got a fair rap for that probably in the past. But we are doing everything in our power to turn that around and to really be responsive to the public.

The other thing that goes along with that kind of approach from the top was that information was — you said it earlier, you couldn’t even get press releases in the past — information was not available. Honestly, if we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, I have no concerns about sharing information with the public about what we’re doing. We want to be and we are going to be a transparent agency under my leadership at least.

Those two things do relate to some of the complaints that I’m thinking about, which are: people being denied for services they feel like they should get, particularly TANF. The other one is child care providers not understanding what’s going on with the vouchers, their parents aren’t getting vouchers. Child care providers have not felt like they could get timely and adequate information from the agency (about the new rating system for higher reimbursement).

I wondered if you could tell me, within those two programs, if you felt like the struggles that people have had — is it more to do with the agency’s operations or is that just the legislative restrictions that the agency is operating under? TANF, for example: a $170 max for a family of three. Other states offer more than that.

Lots of states do, yeah.

And they are serving a larger population of people. The agency has always said that the reason that our (TANF) caseload was so small is because people didn’t qualify, but if they’re not qualifying, it’s not because people aren’t poor or need it, it’s because the state’s restrictions are so stringent.

Well, I’ll say this: We operate within the statutory guidelines that exist. The statute sets the monthly benefit amount. We would have to go back to the legislature to ask for an increased monthly benefit amount. Now is that something I’ve been thinking about? Yes. Because I think the amount of actual direct assistance that we can provide a family is very low. And that’s a dialogue I want to begin with the Legislature, to begin talking about increasing our monthly benefit amount. And the eligibility guidelines, there are two parts to that. There are the federal statutory guidelines and then there are our own eligibility standards and I am open to expanding or at least looking at expanding our eligibility guidelines.

Who decides those (eligibility guidelines)?

We write our own state plan and our state plan describes what our eligibility standards are.

And our eligibility standards are higher than in other states?

I don’t know that I would say higher. They’re different from other states. Every state has their own decision. Several states recently, I think Virginia and New Jersey maybe, recently increased their population of potential TANF recipients by changing their eligibility guidelines and I think that’s something that Mississippi should take a look at. Now, you have to understand, too, I serve at the will and pleasure of the governor and the governor has to be on board with these ideas as well. What we do in terms of changing our eligibility guidelines will go through the governor for his check off and his approval.

Is that always how it works with any kind of change to guidelines in the agency? I mean you couldn’t just decide to do that?

Every agency that I’ll call a cabinet agency within the governor’s cabinet — like Medicaid, DHS, CPS, MEMA, all those — significant regulatory changes, they go through the governor’s office for his feedback.

Do you think that regulatory changes under the previous administration went through the governor?

I don’t know. I wasn’t here, so I couldn’t tell you what happened then.

I think readers are really interested to know how much Phil Bryant would have had to have been involved in the move to this “Families First” mentality (Editor’s note: An agency-sanctioned program called Families First for Mississippi resulted in large up-front payments to nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center, whose officers allegedly misspent the bulk of the money).

Well, I mean, the record is the record about Families First. There was involvement, at least the First Lady was involved with Families First. I can’t tell you what the level of the governor’s knowledge was in the past. I don’t know.

Let’s back up a little bit. When you were announced, you talked a little bit about your experience in the past with this agency. Your family was on food assistance. Can you go into a little bit more detail?

I’m a success story of this agency. My folks divorced when I was about ten years old. My dad just disappeared. We didn’t have any support from him at all. There were six of us. My mom had been a stay-at-home mom. She was 30 years old with six children. We did what a lot of families do, we lost everything. We lost our home. We moved into the projects, as we called them, the low rent housing projects.

And my mom did what she knew to do, she went to qualify for welfare and for food stamps. But then the next thing she did was, she went down to Ingalls Shipbuilding and said, “Give me the best paying job that you can give me.” They said, “The best paying job you could probably qualify for is not one you can do. It’s called Ship Fitter.” She said, “Well, tell me about it. I’ll do it.” Ship Fitter is a very physically demanding job. The job involved her carrying a 16-pound sledge hammer around and taking one-inch plates of steel, with a tack welder at her shoulder, and putting them in place on the hull of the ship and working all the way around the ship all day long, eight hours a day, five days a week.

She trained for that job and we continued on what was called Aid to Families with Dependent Children and food stamps at that time. But she always viewed that help, like I do, as a safety net to get her to a state of stability, so she could then be self-sufficient. And within 18 to 19 months, she had been fully trained. She was fully employed. And we actually moved into a house; she started buying a house with a HUD loan. And I tell folks, that’s the success story I hope we can replicate time after time after time. Now, you know, what she made — I’m amazed to see how six of us and my mom got through those years — but what she made was not a whole lot of money. Probably $10,000-$12,000 back in the 70s and early 80s. But we got by and we had a place to live and we were off of assistance, like I say, within 18, 19 months.

Do you think that story you told, is that what’s happening now. Is the agency doing that today?

It’s what we’re trying to do with every TANF recipient that we come into contact with … What we’re trying to do is offer people tangible help today so they can get to a point of lasting hope for tomorrow. Now, what does that mean? That means we get them the crucial help they need when they’re in the critical stage of life, but we help them with the tools that will get them to stability and then sustainability.

And whether that means helping them with job training through our SNAP E&T program or our TANF Work Program. Or finding them childcare. Or helping them get training in child care and providing them SNAP benefits and TANF benefits while they’re training. All those things are designed to get people from crisis to stability to sustainability. And that’s the ultimate success of this agency, if we get people to sustainability.

What I have told our employees is we want to replicate success stories as much as we can, but in order to do that, we have to be moving toward excellence as an agency. We haven’t been moving toward excellence in the past and that’s a new goal for us as an agency in the future. Not just to go through the motions and make the decision, but to be cognizant of all of the needs.

The other thing we’ve got to do, in coordinating all these agency resources is, if somebody comes in for child support services to the county office and they say, “Well we don’t have don’t have a child support person here.” Well, that shouldn’t be the end of the discussion. We need to find out as an agency, what are their needs, regardless of where they make their first encounter this agency.

When you talk about these services, whether you’re talking to politicians or agency folks, there’s this sense that people will become dependent. I hear this a lot. Can you talk about how that philosophy has permeated the culture here at DHS … Can you tell me about your thoughts on dependence?

I’m thinking about a study that I looked at just yesterday. Florida’s department of human services made a decision a couple years ago to see if they could get 20 percent of their population from crisis to self-sufficiency.

Based on the numbers they had looked at within their agency, if somebody stayed on their benefits for more than 21 months, the likelihood of their getting off before they hit the maximum rate was negligible. If they could find them a place, in other words get them employed, get them plugged into becoming stable and then self-sufficient within that 21-month period, then the likelihood of them coming back and receiving benefits again went down significantly.

Now, I know there’s a lot of talk of dependency, and the reality is, there are generations within our state who have been dependent on benefits like SNAP, like TANF. They don’t get them indefinitely. But there has to be a transition point — my view is — where people begin to do like my mom did and say, “This is a safety net. I’m gonna use the safety net as long as I need it. But then I’m going to begin to take the laboring upon myself and do what I can.”

Now our job as an agency is to find opportunities for people to make that transition.

The other thing I am well aware of … is this idea of benefit cliffs. What happens is people who are on these benefits, they get a job and all of a sudden they roll of the eligibility rolls, but if the job is just beyond a subsistence level, they hit this huge cliff where they’re still food insecure, they still have issues with childcare. You know, some women have a choice between staying on benefits, because they can’t afford the childcare even in the job that they can find. Every state is dealing with this idea of benefit cliffs and the answer is … finding better employment opportunities. But that takes cooperation from employers in the state. It takes our effort in finding those partners. And it takes a consistent commitment to continue supporting folks as long as we can.

Another thing I’m disappointed in: We store a lot of data. But we don’t have access to a lot of data that tells us what our clients’ experience is two years out, three years out, five years out. One of the things we talked about a lot when I was at Medicaid is, we were swamped with data, but none of it was actionable. It was just numbers, numbers, numbers. I don’t even have numbers right now, here at DHS. One of the commitments I’ve made and have communicated to the senior leadership is, we have got to get some performance metrics in place, and then begin to track what we’re actually doing for our population.

And we have things like the Statewide Longitudinal Data Study (Statewide Longitudinal Data System, SLDS), that has all these numbers, but I haven’t seen any results out of that. I haven’t seen any real feedback.

I’m wondering what your interaction with NSPARC (National Strategic Planning and Research Center at Mississippi State University, who runs the state’s SLDS and has a contract with Human Services to provide data analysis) has been, since they’re getting millions of dollars of TANF money and they can’t even tell us what happens to those people?

I’m familiar with NSPARC. I’ve met with NSPARC since I’ve been here. And NSPARC does a lot of work for the state and they do a lot of work for the SLDS, but I haven’t seen a lot of results of that work and one of the commitments that I have made, and my senior leadership folks get a little tired of hearing me say it, but we’re not paying people if we can’t see the results of the work they’re doing. Period.

Would you be surprised to know that NSPARC has gotten more than a million from TANF in the last year?

No, I wouldn’t be surprised. This agency has had a relationship with them for a long time. But as I say, going forward, we’re gonna evaluate contracts. We’re going to evaluate the invoices even as far as that goes, based on the services that are provided. And if they send us an invoice and I don’t see any real deliverables for the invoice, I’m not paying the invoice.

After-school activities, parenting classes and workforce development, those are the things that you’re currently seeking proposals to spend $36 million in TANF subgrants. A national policy person reached out to me about this and said, “Services have a place, but when families are not sure how they will feed their kids or pay next month’s rent, we should be prioritizing those needs.” … During this time — COVID, people have lost their jobs — why isn’t the agency retooling that money to helping meet basic needs for families?

What you’re talking about, though, is the same thing I mentioned: I don’t have the authority today to change the direct assistance levels to give families more direct assistance. Those subgrants that we’re taking our RFP proposals for are already authorized for subgrant purposes. We can’t turn the switch today and commit those to direct assistance because we’d have to change our eligibility standards and we’d have to change the benefit amounts. I mean, I think we are providing direct assistance at about the same level as every state across country. We’re approving about 20 to 25 percent of the applicants and that’s about what the average is.

Yeah, but we’re only spending five percent of our total pot on those and I think it’s unfair to say a percentage of applicants, considering that we’ve denied the assistance to people for so long that people just aren’t applying anymore. The pool of applicants is smaller because people know that they can’t get the assistance.

I hear what you’re saying. I’m also obliged to operate within the TANF guidelines.

Why not divert all of the $36 million to child care, where there’s a long wait list?

We have created a child care task force and we have $47 million in CARES Act money that we’re going to devote to child care. And we’re meeting with child care providers.

…We’re doing everything we can to help child care providers and to help child care recipients. The task force met just a couple weeks ago. It’s a new task force. They’re going to meet again in a couple weeks. We’re trying to hear from those providers: What can we do for them? Like one of the things we’re doing, during this COVID time, we’re going to provide PPE for them. We’re going to provide cleaning supplies for them. … We’re committed to doing what we can in child care.

I did want to ask a little bit about the ongoing investigation and what you can tell me about what investigators might be looking at now.

Well, there’s not a whole lot I can tell you. Because obviously I’m not involved— This agency is the subject of the investigation so they don’t keep me really informed about what they’re looking at. Indictments have been returned, the state trials will happen whenever they get set for trial.

Far as I’m aware, there is a separate federal investigation going. I don’t know what the scope of that is.

From what you’ve seen so far since you’ve been here, what’s your sense for how this could have happened? How do people steal millions of dollars of money that’s supposed to go to the neediest people?

It’s the same story I’ve seen in fraud investigations time after time after time. If there are no internal controls, then money gets spent any way people who have it want to spend it. We were not doing monitoring visits. We were not doing oversight. And when you put money in people’s hands and you attach no guidelines to that, they’re going to spend it however they choose to.

Now, all of that has changed. Our subgrant manual has been rewritten. Our monitoring process has been augmented. The compliance office now controls the monitoring of our subgrants. That’s a whole new approach. And I can tell you, Sandra Griffith is not going to take no for an answer when she goes out to monitor a subgrantee and says, “Tell me what you spent this money on.” “No, we can’t tell you that.” That’s not gonna work. That’s the past. The future is, we’re going to be compliant. Everybody we do business with is going to be compliant.

The biggest chunk of money questioned in the indictment is this payment to Prevacus, this concussion research firm. Can you help me understand that: Why did DHS money go to Prevacus?

I don’t have any direct knowledge that DHS money went. Now, the money that we awarded to MCEC (Mississippi Community Education Center) for them to do TANF work apparently did go to Prevacus. But we didn’t give it to them to give to Prevacus if that’s your question. DHS didn’t authorize anybody to spend money on investments in a concussion research group.

How do you know that?

Because I’ve looked at the records. There’s nothing in the records that indicates that DHS approved anything like that. Now, can I say that John Davis didn’t tell them, “Yeah do that”? No, I can’t say that. I don’t know what’s in John Davis’ mind. And I don’t know what John Davis told them. I had a call the other day; somebody said, “Did John Davis authorize no monitoring for MCEC and FRC?” And my answer to that was, “Probably so, but I don’t have any evidence of that.” Or did he tell anybody here, “You don’t have to watch MCEC and FRC?” Well, nobody who’s still here says that John Davis told them that. Did he tell MCEC and FRC that? That’ll come out in the trials.

And you’ve made staff changes since then after your own internal investigation to make sure that people who are currently on staff weren’t involved in those actions. How involved were people who were still at the agency?

Well, I mean, I’m satisfied that the people who are here now are committed to the mission of this agency and the folks who aren’t here any longer made decisions. You know, when I was doing my due diligence, when I came on board, some people when they were asked to be interviewed, they said, “You know, I think I’ll go home instead.” Others, after talking with me, made decisions to go home as well, we make joint decisions about that.

How many people?

I don’t know actual numbers. We’ve got two or three new deputy directors here. We’ve got two or three new division directors.

I mean, was it a big overhaul or just a handful of people? Estimate. It might not make that much of a difference, but it’s something my readers want to know: John Davis and one guy were indicted but how many other people at DHS were involved? And some people did leave as a result of you poking into it.

I have no knowledge that anybody still here was involved in any criminal conduct with John Davis or Nancy New or anybody else.

Here today, but what about when you took over?

The ones who decided to resign or retire, I can’t tell you. I didn’t do that investigation, so I don’t know who all was involved. The issues I was looking at is the people who wanted to continue working here. And I’m satisfied that the ones who are here had no involvement with any criminal conduct or any knowledge of any criminal conduct.

Editor’s note: This interview was published alongside two other stories about the state’s embattled Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Read them below.

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Anna Wolfe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who covers inequity and corruption in government safety net programs, nonprofit service providers and institutions affecting the marginalized. She began reporting for Mississippi Today in 2018, after she approached the editor with the idea of starting a poverty beat, the first of its kind in the state. Wolfe has received national recognition for her years-long coverage of Mississippi’s welfare program, in which she exposed new details about how officials funneled tens of millions of federal public assistance funds away from needy families and instead to their friends, families and the pet projects of famous athletes. Since joining Mississippi Today, she has received several national honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, the Livingston Award, two Goldsmith Prizes for Investigative Reporting, the Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the Sacred Cat Award, the Nellie Bly Award, the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, the Sidney Award, the National Press Foundation’s Poverty and Inequality Award and others. Previously, Wolfe worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide newspaper, where she covered city hall, health care, and wrote stories about hunger and medical billing, earning the Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism two years in a row. Born and raised on the Puget Sound in Washington State, Wolfe moved to Mississippi in 2012 to attend Mississippi State University, where she currently serves on the Digital Journalism Advisory Board. She has lived in Jackson, Mississippi since graduating in 2014.