Gov. Phil Bryant ponders a response to a question regarding his legacy following a life of public service, while sitting in his Jackson, Miss., Capitol office, Jan. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Mississippi Today’s “The Backchannel” series, which examines former Gov. Phil Bryant’s involvement in what officials have called the largest public embezzlement scheme in state history, is renewing calls for a federal investigation.

NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on April 7, three days after the beginning of Mississippi Today’s series, asking for him to prosecute the people responsible for stealing federal funds meant to serve the nation’s poorest residents.

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

“We decided to move forward to request the Department of Justice to do a thorough investigation after the investigative reporting from Mississippi Today,” Johnson said Friday. “It is obvious others were involved. This is perhaps the largest federal fraud situation that we have seen in the state of Mississippi and maybe one of the largest in the country. The fact that the former governor could be involved and others, it requires a thorough investigation by the federal authorities to ensure that taxpayers in the state of Mississippi and across the country are made whole.”

In 2020, the State Auditor’s Office released a report that questioned $94 million in federal grant spending from the Mississippi Department of Human Services. While the office arrested six people in February of 2020 related to the alleged theft of $4 million, no one else involved in the sprawling scheme has faced charges.

Mississippi Today’s series uncovered never-bef0re-published private conversations Bryant had with retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre and the owner of Prevacus, the company that received $2.15 million in allegedly stolen welfare funds from the state. Favre and Prevacus owner Jake Vanlandingham offered Bryant stock in the company in exchange for the help he gave them during his time in office. Bryant agreed in text messages to accept the offer two days after he left office — but the arrests by the state auditor, a Bryant appointee and former campaign manager, derailed the arrangement.

None of these men have been accused of wrongdoing related to the deal.

“What was most striking about the Mississippi Today article is the fact that the governor knew or should have known” that the company was receiving funding from the state, Johnson told Mississippi Today. “And it appears from firsthand accounts from his emails and text messages that he was steering decisions as it relates to TANF funds, which obviously raises a lot of questions and should require a federal investigation into his involvement.”

“If, in fact, that was the case,” Johnson added, “he and others should be held accountable for their involvement.”

Much more has yet to be revealed about the widespread misspending of at least $77 million in federal public assistance funds.

“The audit report noted that its findings and all related information had been referred to the U.S. Department of Justice,” Johnson wrote in his letter. “However, nearly two years later, despite the overwhelming documentary evidence of fraud, forgery, and abuse in this matter, DOJ has not yet launched a criminal investigation.”

At the time of the 2020 arrests, State Auditor Shad White said his office had turned over all information to federal investigators. White justified his office’s making the initial arrests — including the former Bryant-appointed welfare director John Davis and nonprofit founder Nancy New — in order to quickly stop the flow of funds from the welfare agency to the contractors who were allegedly misspending the money.

Then-U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst in Jackson said the local FBI and his office were not aware of the welfare agency investigation until the arrests, but that “we stand ready to put the substantial experience and expertise of our offices and the entire U.S. Department of Justice to work to help our colleagues bring fraudsters to justice and stamp out public corruption,” the Clarion Ledger reported.

“Not only is it imperative that DOJ take prompt and aggressive action to protect the Mississippi residents who were and continue to be harmed by the wrongful actions of state officials,” Johnson wrote, “failure to investigate may lead to the impression that DOJ is continuing the previous administration’s pattern of looking the other way when laws are broken by white state officials, especially when the wrongdoing disproportionately
harms minorities.”

READ MORE: Mississippi Today investigation exposes new evidence of Phil Bryant’s role in welfare scandal

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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.