The judge most recently assigned to oversee the fraud and embezzlement case against former welfare agency director John Davis has recused himself.

Judge Jess Dickinson, the former commissioner for the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services, took over Davis’ case in Hinds County, Mississippi Today first reported Tuesday, in the course of helping the circuit court reduce overcrowding on its docket exacerbated by the pandemic.

Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services Commissioner Jess Dickinson explains why the agency will request millions more dollars from the Legislature to fulfill a court order to improve the state’s long-troubled foster care system, Thursday, March 15, 2018, at their offices in Jackson, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis) Credit: (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

By Thursday, Dickinson had recused himself, citing the appearance of a conflict of interest due to the interaction between Dickinson’s former agency, which oversees the state’s foster care system, and the Mississippi Department of Human Services, which Davis ran from 2016 to 2019. Davis is accused of perpetuating a scheme that caused $70 million in public assistance dollars to be wrongfully diverted away from the needy. Criminal charges accuse him of paying his close associate, former WWE wrestler Brett DiBiase, for work he didn’t do and conspiring with an agency contractor to send DiBiase to rehab on the taxpayer’s dime. Davis has maintained his innocence while DiBiase pleaded guilty to his role in the scheme.

“While I had little personal contact with the defendant, many members of my staff interacted on a daily basis with members of the MDHS staff, who processed a large part of MDCPS’s financial transactions, including payment to foster parents and congregate care facilities, as well as payroll to MDCPS’s approximately 1,300 employees,” Dickinson wrote.

Davis’ agency also came to the rescue in 2018 when CPS, which had been part of MDHS until the Legislature made it its own agency in 2016, faced financial trouble. CPS receives some funding from the welfare agency’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, the same fund Davis is accused of defrauding.

“Additionally, when I began my tenure as Commissioner of MDCPS and discovered the
agency was on track to experience a deficit of more then $50 million for the then-current fiscal year, MDHS provided a substantial portion of the funds necessary for MDCPS to meet its financial obligations and allow the agency to complete the fiscal year without a deficit,” Dickinson wrote.

“I believe the potential appearance of a conflict of interest in the mind of the public is too strong for me to preside over this case,” he added.

Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Adrienne Wooten originally presided over the Davis case. She entered a gag order in the case, which she extended and strengthened in early January, causing public officials to become virtually silent about the case and welfare misspending altogether. On Tuesday, her administrative assistant declined to provide any more information about the case reassignment, saying any information would have to come from the attorneys in the case. They either did not return calls or declined to comment, citing the gag order. By mid-day Friday, there were no other filings in the Davis case suggesting who it may be assigned to next.

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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.