“I have a passion for amplifying the voices of those in our state that need the most help.”

Anna Wolfe, investigative reporter

This is a character guide for Mississippi Today’s series “The Backchannel.” Below are the main players and other people swept up in the sprawling welfare scandal and surrounding events. Most of these individuals have not been charged with a crime or accused of wrongdoing.

PART 1: Phil Bryant had his sights on a payout as welfare funds flowed to Brett Favre

The criminal defendants

John Davis, director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services from 2016 to 2019

Nancy New, prominent private school operator, founder and director of the nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center

Zach New, Nancy New’s son and nonprofit assistant director

Brett DiBiase, retired WWE wrestler, copier salesman, peer addiction educator

Ann McGrew, accountant for Nancy New’s nonprofit and for-profit private school company

Gregory “Latimer” Smith, former MDHS procurement officer

The political circle

Phil Bryant, Mississippi’s governor from 2012-2020, current partner at lobbying firm Bryant Songy Snell

Deborah Bryant, Bryant’s wife and First Lady

Joey Songy, Bryant’s former chief of staff and current business partner

Joe Canizaro, Bryant’s friend and wealthy developer from New Orleans

Laurie Smith, former educator and Bryant’s policy adviser, executive director of both the State Early Childhood Advisory Council and the State Workforce Investment Board

Mimmo Parisi, founder and director of a data science center at Mississippi State University and chair of the State Early Childhood Advisory Council 

Andrea Mayfield, director of the Mississippi Community College Board and chair of the State Workforce Investment Board

Tate Reeves, Mississippi’s current governor, served as lieutenant governor in the Legislature when Bryant was governor

Rick Santorum, former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania

The athletes

Brett Favre, retired Hall of Fame NFL quarterback from Kiln, Mississippi

Ted DiBiase, retired WWE wrestler and announcer known as “The Million Dollar Man” and evangelical preacher

Ted “Teddy” DiBiase Jr., Ted’s son and retired WWE wrestler and motivational speaker

Paul Lacoste, retired linebacker and fitness trainer from Jackson, Mississippi

The scientist

Jake Vanlandingham, Florida-based neuroscientist and owner of Prevacus

The old MDHS team

Jacob Black, former deputy director of MDHS under John Davis, interim MDHS director from January 2020 to March 2020, current staff officer at the Mississippi Division of Medicaid

Lynne Myers, former director of communications for MDHS and former Gov. Bryant staffer

Zola Haralson, Davis’ secretary at MDHS

The Family at Families First 

Noah McRae, great-nephew of Gov. Phil Bryant, grandson of Deborah Bryant’s sister, former student of Nancy New’s private school

Austin Smith, nephew of John Davis, IT coordinator for Families First, project manager for Mississippi Community College Board preschool grant

Kevin Myers, husband of Lynne Myers and former “community liaison” for Families First for Mississippi, former deputy director for the Department of Public Safety

The new MDHS team

Christopher Freeze, Phil Bryant-appointed director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services from August 2019 to January 2020

Bob Anderson, Gov. Tate Reeves-appointed current director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services since March of 2020 and former prosecutor for the Mississippi Attorney General’s Public Integrity Division

The auditors

Shad White, Mississippi State Auditor, originally appointed by Phil Bryant in 2018 and first elected in 2019

Stephanie Palmertree, director of financial and compliance division at state auditor’s office

The prosecutors 

Jody Owens, Hinds County District Attorney elected in 2019

Jamie McBride, Hinds County Assistant District Attorney

Brad Pigott, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi hired by MDHS in 2021 to bring civil charges against those who misspent welfare money

The defense attorneys

Scott Gilbert, attorney for Teddy DiBiase Jr. and former attorney for Noah McRae

Merrida Coxwell and Chuck Mullins, attorneys for John Davis

Cynthia Speetjens, attorney for Nancy New

Tom Fortner, attorney for Zach New and Ted DiBiase and his wife Melanie

     The celebrity

Jennifer Garner, Hollywood actress and ambassador for Save the Children

The organizations

Mississippi Department of Human Services, the state’s welfare agency, which administers around $1 billion in federal public assistance dollars each year

Prevacus, a Florida-based biomedical start-up

Families First for Mississippi, the name of a statewide family-stabilization program funded by tens of millions of welfare dollars from the Mississippi Department of Human Services and operated by the nonprofits Mississippi Community Education Center and Family Resource Center of North Mississippi

Mississippi Community Education Center, a nonprofit founded and run by Nancy New in Jackson

New Summit School, one of Nancy New’s private schools, located in Jackson

Family Resource Center of North Mississippi, a nonprofit run by Christi Webb in Tupelo

Cirlot Agency, the branding agency owned by Rick Looser and Liza Cirlot Looser that conducted marketing and design for Families First for Mississippi

Supertalk, the conservative talk radio network, run by Kim Dillon, that broadcasted Families First for Mississippi events and interviews

T.K. Martin Center, a Mississippi State University clinic for kids with learning disabilities that Phil Bryant asked John Davis to help

Willowood Developmental Center, a Jackson center for kids and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities that Phil Bryant asked John Davis to help

Save the Children, an international humanitarian nonprofit Phil Bryant helped to receive welfare funding


We want to hear from you!

By listening more intently and understanding the people who make up Mississippi’s communities, our reporters put a human face on how policy affects everyday Mississippians. We’re listening closely to our readers to help us continue to align our work with the needs and priorities of people from all across Mississippi. Please take a few minutes to tell us what’s on your mind by clicking the button below.


Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

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.