Then-Rep. Adrienne Wooten, D-Jackson, argues against the passage of a bill in 2018. Wooten is now a Hinds County Circuit Court judge. Credit: Rogelio V. Solis, AP

As the accountant, Ann McGrew would have some of the most direct knowledge about who directed funds to which sources within a “sprawling” welfare embezzlement scheme uncovered one year ago.

As a defendant, McGrew has cooperated with the Hinds County District Attorney’s Office, resulting in a guilty plea agreement between the parties, according to the most recent court filing in the case.

McGrew, former accountant for nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center, is expected to serve as a star witness for the state against higher level officials, such as the nonprofit’s founder Nancy New and former Mississippi Department of Human Services Director John Davis, who allegedly conspired to redirect millions of federal public assistance dollars away from the poor and into the pockets of friends and celebrities.

But the judge apparently didn’t like the deal.

On Jan. 26, Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Adrienne Wooten rejected the plea agreement that McGrew’s attorney and the district attorney had previously reached, according to court files. McGrew’s attorney and an assistant district attorney requested a continuance for the case, which was set to begin Feb. 1, to an unspecified future date.

Wooten’s law clerk said she does not discuss ongoing cases. A gag order set by another judge overseeing separate cases within the alleged scheme has prevented parties in the case from speaking in detail.

“The State continues to prosecute this case to the fullest extent of the law,” Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens wrote in a statement. “We will seek to conclude this case by plea or trial as soon as possible.”

McGrew’s attorney Joe Holloman said his client intends to continue assisting the district attorney and the State Auditor’s Office, which is working with the FBI on an ongoing investigation into the scheme. Owens and Holloman would not discuss the specifics of the reached agreement.

Agents from the auditor’s office arrested six people in February of 2020 on charges of fraud and embezzlement, alleging they conspired to steal over $4 million in federal block grant funds intended to help Mississippians escape poverty.

Former professional wrestler Brett DiBiase, who attended a luxury drug rehab facility in Malibu on the welfare program’s dime, is the only defendant to successfully change his plea to guilty, which he did in front of a different judge. He pleaded guilty to making fraudulent statements, a crime with a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000, and the state dropped a separate conspiracy charge in exchange for his cooperation as a witness.

After multiple extensions, trials for Davis and New are set on March 29th and April 5th, respectively, but additional continuances are likely.

“The discovery that has been supplied by the State in the within (sic) Cause is extremely voluminous and additional time is required for the Defense and the State to thoroughly examine the same,” the attorneys wrote in their request for continuance in the McGrew case. “In addition the discovery is still incomplete in as much as the parties are still awaiting the completion of the forensic audit being completed by the Mississippi Department of Human Services, the source of the funds which that State alleged were miss appropriated (sic).”

The state agency expects a third party accountant it hired will complete the forensic audit in May.

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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.