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, a native of Tacoma, Wa., is an investigative reporter writing about poverty and economic justice. Before joining the staff at Mississippi Today in September of 2018, Anna worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide daily newspaper. She also worked as an investigative reporter for the Center for Public Integrity and Jackson Free Press, the capital city’s alternative newsweekly. Anna has received national recognition for her work, including the 2021 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, the 2021 Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the 2021 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the 2020 Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award and the February 2020 Sidney Award for reporting on Mississippi’s debtors prisons. She received the National Press Foundation’s 2020 Poverty and Inequality Award. She also received first place in the regional Green Eyeshade Awards in 2021 for Public Service in Online Journalism and 2020 for Business Reporting, and the local Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism in 2019 and 2018 for reporting on unfair medical billing practices and hunger in the Mississippi Delta.