John Davis, former director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, was arrested within the largest alleged public embezzlement case in state history. Credit: MDHS Twitter

A judge in the ongoing welfare embezzlement case is balancing the public’s interest in learning how officials misspent tens of millions of federal dollars with a defendant’s right to a fair trial.

On Tuesday, Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Adrienne Wooten spoke strongly in defense of a gag order in the case of former welfare director John Davis, saying that media coverage of the scandal threatens the court’s ability to assemble an impartial jury.

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

She said it’s unfair that State Auditor Shad White, who initially investigated the scheme, and current Mississippi Department of Human Services Director Bob Anderson are free to make comments about Davis’ leadership while Davis is bound by a gag order and unable to respond.

“What it looks like is that one side of the story is being put out there,” Wooten said.

Officials charged Davis almost two years ago with conspiracy, embezzlement or fraud by a public official and making false statements to defraud the government. The indictment alleges his agency entered a $48,000 contract with ex-wrestler Brett DiBiase to conduct opioid addiction education courses, and paid him knowing he wasn’t conducting the work because he was in rehab. Davis also allegedly conspired to use welfare money, which his agency had granted to a nonprofit, to pay for DiBiase’s four-month long stint in a luxury rehab facility in California.

READ MORE: Coverage of Mississippi’s sprawling welfare scandal

But the criminal charges only scratch the surface: Under Davis’ leadership, independent auditors have found $70 million in improper purchases with federal public assistance dollars. Nonprofits made most of these purchases, which obscured the spending from public view. For example, the people in charge of spending welfare dollars paid $5 million to help University of Southern Mississippi build a new volleyball stadium, paid retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre $1.1 million for a promotional gig, bought a horse ranch for former high school running back Marcus Dupree, paid over $3 million to Brett DiBiase’s brother Ted DiBiase Jr., also a retired WWE wrestler, to conduct professional development, hired officials’ friends and family members and paid them six-figure salaries, and paid rents on properties they owned that sat empty.

No one has been charged in connection with these purchases. Many more millions are yet to be accounted for and investigators have not revealed the involvement of any other figures, such as state leaders, in the scheme.

Davis’ attorney recently asked the court to extend an existing suppression order in his case to include White and Anderson, citing two recent articles Mississippi Today published about the case. White launched the initial investigation into how Davis administered welfare. Gov. Tate Reeves appointed Anderson, former director of the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit in the Attorney General’s office, to clean up the agency in the aftermath.

In the nearly two years after agents first arrested Davis, White’s office has publicized continued findings related to welfare spending and Anderson has made media appearances to discuss changes at his agency as it attempts to restore public trust.

White and Anderson did not object to being included in the gag order, agreeing to refrain from discussing Davis’ criminal culpability. But their counsel argued that a broader order that prevented White and Anderson from discussing Davis’ tenure overall — such as policies, procedures and events separate from the criminal charges — would be too restrictive and prevent them from being transparent with the public about ongoing investigations and findings.

Wooten pushed back on this argument, repeatedly asking the attorney representing White and Anderson from the state attorney general’s office how the gag order prevents White from doing his job, namely auditing and investigating government spending. She asked if media coverage of an auditor’s investigation is initiated when a reporter asks the office a question or after the office publicizes the case.

A combination of both, the attorney answered.

Wooten also said that it’s impossible to separate the discussion of Davis’ criminal culpability, as it relates to the narrow criminal charges against him, from the overall alleged scheme that occurred under his watch.

“There is no division there when it comes to the criminal portion of the case,” Wooten said.

Wooten said it appears as if the officials are attempting to try Davis’ case in the media.

The agency expects to soon file civil charges against Davis and others who received the funds.

When White released the first audit outlining the scheme in May of 2020, he said Davis saw his appointment as head of human services in 2016 “as an opportunity to build a kingdom over there.” But in the last year, White’s office has declined on several occasions to publicly discuss the particulars of the criminal case.

Anderson recently told a reporter that his agency had reinstated the practice of sending letters to subgrantees who are suspected of misusing grant funds, which he said Davis’ administration had stopped. According to a Mississippi Today review of public records, the agency sent out 110 letters during roughly the last year under Anderson compared to four letters in fiscal year 2019 under Davis.

Davis’ attorney argues that when White and Anderson have discussed the case with the media, they have focused solely on Davis’ actions and not the several other employees who approved various purchases or the agency policies that he argues sanctioned Davis’ conduct.

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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.