Credit: Photo Illustration by Zack Orsborn

During his last year as governor, Phil Bryant indulged NFL legend Brett Favre’s pleas for help with a pharmaceutical venture, which ended up receiving more than $2 million in allegedly stolen welfare funds from the Mississippi Department of Human Services during Bryant’s administration.

This money was supposed to be used to help the state’s most vulnerable residents. 

Text messages reveal the backchannel of influence Bryant used to elevate the company, Prevacus, outside the view of the public — and the payout that awaited him when he left office.

Read the full story: Phil Bryant had his sights on a payout as welfare funds flowed to Brett Favre

Key takeaways from Part 1 of Mississippi Today’s “The Backchannel” series:

1) On Favre’s behalf, Bryant used his office and political influence to help leaders of Prevacus, a startup pharmaceutical company, connect with funding sources and high-level employees at the nation’s drug regulation agency. 

2) Prevacus ended up collecting $2 million that prosecutors say was stolen from federal grants administered by the Mississippi Department of Human Services. The money flowed through a nonprofit organization with no public transparency and almost no oversight.  

3) Prevacus offered Bryant shares for his help while he was still in office. The governor told the company’s owner he could not accept an incentives package until the day after he left office. Bryant appeared prepared to take the stock, but he abruptly ended his relationship with the company after the auditor made high-profile arrests in the welfare scandal.

4) Prevacus owner Jake Vanlandingham and Favre, who was a top investor in the company, saw Bryant as their ticket to receiving government funding for the private venture. Vanlandingham and Favre went to great lengths for several months to keep Bryant in the loop and in their corner. As the two became desperate for more funding, they strategized how to leverage the governor’s influence over the Mississippi Department of Human Services, the state’s welfare agency. 

5) Bryant says he didn’t know federal welfare money was given to the drug company. But texts over the course of several months show that Favre and Vanlandingham briefed the governor about the welfare agency he oversaw and its powerful charity subgrantee passing funds to the drug company.

6) Bryant says he did not read his texts carefully enough to understand that Prevacus was working with and receiving taxpayer funds from the agency subcontractor – even though Favre and Vanlandingham told him by text on three separate occasions.

READ MORE: Q&A with former Gov. Phil Bryant about Prevacus, welfare scandal

7) The idea was for Prevacus to spur job creation in the state, Bryant says. But he didn’t engage his economic development agency in that work — the typical path governors take when trying to entice companies to do business in Mississippi. Instead, Bryant kept his dealings with the company private and worked to get them to develop a clinical trials facility at the Mississippi Gulf Coast development in which he is listed as vice president. Prevacus never developed the anti-concussion drugs it promised and Vanlandingham sold the idea to another company. Mississippi taxpayers have nothing to show for the investment. 

8) When investigators from the auditor’s office probed whether welfare funds had been misspent, Bryant removed John Davis, his appointed director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services who doled out federal grant money to people and organizations close to the governor with little oversight. But when Bryant’s new agency director — a former FBI agent — implemented a typical bid process for receiving the grant funds, Prevacus leaders and other grant beneficiaries asked the governor to step in and help.

Read the full story: Phil Bryant had his sights on a payout as welfare funds flowed to Brett Favre

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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.