Auditor Shad White and welfare director Bob Anderson filed a motion opposing a broad gag order in Mississippi’s ongoing welfare fraud case.

Judge-ordered gags in the ongoing welfare embezzlement cases have prevented defendants, attorneys and prosecutors from speaking to the media about the criminal charges for the last year or so.

But attorneys for one defendant, former Mississippi Department of Human Services Director John Davis, want officials to stop talking publicly about the embattled bureaucrat altogether.

And State Auditor Shad White and the current welfare agency director Bob Anderson aren’t having it.

“Such an order would amount to an unconstitutional prior restraint, be overly broad, and would severely interfere with Auditor White’s, Executive Director Anderson’s, and agency employees’ responsibilities as public officials,” an assistant attorney general wrote on behalf of White and Anderson Tuesday.

White and Anderson were responding to a motion filed by Davis’ attorney Chuck Mullins of Jackson law firm Coxwell & Associates last Monday.

“Both Mr. Anderson and Mr. White have repeatedly made comments about Mr. Davis, inferring matters about his guilt, but failing to report instances when the actions taken by Mr. Davis were approved by MDHS policies,” reads Mullins’ motion filed Dec. 13. “In some instances, Mr. White and Mr. Davis have made comments about Mr. Davis’s actions when those actions were approved by other people at MDHS.”

Officials have accused Davis of conspiring with nonprofit founder Nancy New to steal over $4 million in federal welfare dollars. However, the charges in his indictment are more narrowly focused on how his agency paid Brett DiBiase, an ex-wrestler who has battled drug addiction, $48,000 under a contract for opioid addiction education he did not fulfill. The indictment also alleges Davis conspired with New to use taxpayer dollars to pay for DiBiase’s four-month long stay in a luxury Malibu rehab facility. DiBiase pleaded guilty in December of 2020 and has agreed to be a state’s witness.

But the criminal indictments encompass just a sliver of an overall scheme to spend welfare money on “increasingly absurd expenditures,” according to White, with improper payments totaling around $70 million, according to independent auditors.

Much of this misspending, and the agency procedures that led to it, have not resulted in criminal charges. Though some of the alleged purchases outlined by auditors may violate federal rules, they may not constitute a crime. White and Anderson argued Tuesday it is their duty to remain transparent about what transpired under the leadership of Davis, who was appointed by former Gov. Phil Bryant.

“Auditor White continues to receive information to date and has ongoing investigations into various allegations of additional wrongdoing at DHS during the tenure of the Defendant. There is a very real possibility that additional findings may be made by the Auditor’s office and that information may be required by law to be made public,” the motion reads. “Likewise, MDHS and its head, Executive Director Anderson, are dealing with significant fall-out because of the practices of the Defendant while he ran MDHS from 2016 through 2019. It may become necessary for Auditor White, Executive Director Anderson, or their employees to make public comments about these issues.”

The department also plans to file civil litigation in an attempt to recoup some of the misspent funds, which will be a public proceeding.

The latest motion asks the court to deny Davis’ motion to extend the gag order to apply broadly to White and Anderson discussing Davis’ actions.

White and Anderson argue that comments about how Davis ran the welfare agency “have nothing to do with the Defendant’s culpability” and would not influence the potential jury pool or threaten his right to a fair trial. Instead, White and Anderson say they agree to a limited gag order under which they will refrain from commenting on the criminal charges or Davis’ alleged crimes.

A hearing on Davis’ motion is currently set for Dec. 28.

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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.