With the help of Phil Bryant’s own words in candid, never-before-published conversations, Mississippi Today’s series “The Backchannel” uncovers the depth of the former governor’s involvement within a sprawling welfare scandal that plagued his administration.

Each story in the series will delve into an aspect of Bryant’s entanglement with the welfare agency’s spending — whether the ties to his personal business dealings, his relationships with players in the scheme, patterns in his leadership, agency directives or nepotism.

While he was Mississippi’s governor, the welfare department that Bryant oversaw misused and squandered at least $77 million in federal funds meant to assist the state’s poorest residents — and so far he’s skirted all accountability.

This scheme wasn’t confined to a rogue government employee forging checks.

It was the inevitable outcome inside a public assistance office that had distorted its supposed mission to uplift people in poverty, while throwing tens of millions of welfare dollars at pie-in-the-sky plans with virtually no oversight.

The diversion of the funds away from the needy happened largely through sanctioned government processes — whether by the state agency or a private nonprofit — and in many cases with permission and in broad daylight.

The head of that system was Phil Bryant.

“I’ll take my responsibility,” Bryant told Mississippi Today in a three-hour interview on April 2. “Yeah, I was the governor. I wish I had been able to catch it. The moment I did, I called in the state auditor.”

Since the auditor arrested Bryant’s appointed director in 2020, state and federal investigators and prosecutors have failed to publicly scrutinize the governor’s role — which is palpable in written communication they’ve possessed for more than two years. The state auditor, a former Bryant staffer and campaign manager who the former governor later appointed as auditor, said that he believed it was the welfare director’s duty to reject any improper requests from the governor, not the governor’s responsibility to know agency spending regulations.

Mississippi Today scoured thousands of pages of text messages gathered by law enforcement agents in the course of their investigation. The communications, shared with our news organization, were sent between some of the key players and during limited time periods. We also reviewed thousands of emails and agency documents we received through more than 80 public records requests. Mississippi Today analyzed these records and conducted dozens of interviews.

Together, the trove of documents reveals the ease with which Bryant wielded his influence over the funding decisions of his eager-to-please welfare director. It also shows the lengths Bryant was willing to go to help his friend and retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre, who was the inspiration behind more than $8 million in improper welfare payments. 

The messages Mississippi Today obtained set a stage for the events that led to what state officials consider the largest public embezzlement scheme in state history. They also raise questions about whether any officials plan to hold him accountable — and what more may have occurred under Bryant’s watch that he didn’t discuss in writing.

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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.