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, 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.