A Hinds County judge has reassigned the criminal case of retired Mississippi welfare director John Davis to a special judge who happens to be Davis’ former colleague, according to a court order posted Tuesday.

The new judge, former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Jess Dickinson, ran the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services while Davis served as director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services.

The two agencies that Dickinson and Davis ran interacted closely; the offices used to be one in the same until the Legislature separated CPS into its own department in 2016. But CPS still gets funding from the welfare agency.

Mississippi Child Protection Services executive director Jess Dickinson addresses members of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee during hearings in Jackson Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. Credit: Rogelio V. Solis, AP

In fact, Child Protection Services, which oversees the state’s foster care system, relies on MDHS sharing a portion of its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant to satisfy its budget each year.

TANF is the federal welfare fund Davis allegedly defrauded.

The connection between Davis and Dickinson raises questions about a possible conflict of interest. But because of a gag order in the case, the parties will not say what prompted the reassignment or the likeliness that Dickinson will reassign the case again.

The Mississippi Supreme Court appointed several special judges, including Dickinson, in 2020 to help Hinds County clear its backlog of cases, which is how Dickinson wound up presiding over his contemporary’s case.

Reached Tuesday evening, Dickinson told Mississippi Today he had not yet learned that Davis’ case had been assigned to him within a batch of cases Hinds County is transferring to him.

The State Auditor’s Office has accused Davis of perpetuating a scheme that funneled $70 million in federal funds away from the needy between 2016 and 2020. Prosecutors charged Davis criminally for just a fraction of the misspending. They say he allegedly defrauded the state by paying his close associate, former pro-wrestler Brett DiBiase, for work he didn’t conduct and conspiring with nonprofit founder Nancy New to use embezzled welfare funds to send DiBiase to rehab.

From 2016 to 2019, Davis’ department transferred $42.5 million of its TANF funding to child welfare services, according to figures it reported to the federal government.

Then-Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Davis as welfare director in January of 2016 and Dickenson as the head of CPS in September of 2017.

During Dickinson’s tenure, his agency was plagued by budget shortfalls and threats of takeover from the federal government. CPS failed, year after year, to comply with the terms of a court settlement in a long-running federal lawsuit. The 2004 complaint accused Mississippi of failing to protect children in its custody. The plaintiffs maintain that foster children continue to be abused and neglected as recently as 2019, according to media reports.

The fact that Mississippi could have used the money Davis’ agency and its contractors allegedly wasted to strengthen supports for families and reduce neglect inextricably links the welfare scandal to the condition of the foster care system in Mississippi.

Most of the alleged misspending — such as a million-dollar promotional gig for Brett Favre, a new $5 million volleyball stadium, $2 million in personal investments in a pharmaceutical startup, a horse ranch for Marcus Dupree, and more — occurred within a program called Families First for Mississippi.

Families First was highly publicized as the programmatic arm of a judicial initiative, called Family First, which was supposed to prevent kids from being taken from their homes. But for tens of millions of dollars, it delivered very little.

Davis announced his retirement in July of 2019, just a couple weeks after a few of his employees took a tip about agency misspending to Gov. Bryant, who relayed the information to another one of his appointees, State Auditor Shad White. Dickinson retired in January of 2020 at the end of Bryant’s administration. The next month, agents arrested Davis and three months later, the auditor released a report questioning $94 million of his agency’s purchases, mostly from the TANF fund.

While Davis allegedly conspired in what officials are calling the largest public embezzlement scheme in state history, Dickinson struggled to keep operations afloat at an already cash-strapped agency with a dwindling budget.

Now, Dickinson could have a great impact on what happens to Davis.

Senior Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Tomie Green signed the order that placed Dickinson over the case. It contains all of one sentence.

The case is reassigned to Dickinson, the order signed Jan. 31 reads, “on the basis of Mississippi Supreme Court’s Orders providing relief to the 7th Circuit Court District due to backlog created during the Coronavirus pursuant under 2021-22 Cares Act.”

The original judge in the case, Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Adrienne Wooten, most recently moved the trial to March 8, a full two years after his February 2020 arrest. But counsel for Davis and state prosecutors both requested another continuance on Jan. 28.

An administrative assistant for Wooten said she could not provide a reason for the reassignment. The district attorney’s office declined to comment. Judge Green and Davis’ attorney Merrida Coxwell did not return Mississippi Today’s calls Tuesday.

Prosecutors, attorneys for Davis and the auditor’s office have previously cited a gag order in the case as preventing them from answering questions from the press.

A new indictment filed in January against Nancy New, who partially ran Families First, alleges that the four $40,000 payments her nonprofit made to the luxury rehab facility in Malibu where DiBiase was receiving treatment were actually bribes for Davis. Prosecutors allege the $160,000 extinguished debt Davis had, and in exchange, he agreed to extend the New nonprofit’s TANF grant. The accusation suggests Davis personally benefitted from New helping DiBiase, a new theory in the case.

Davis has not been charged with bribery.

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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.