“I have a passion for amplifying the voices of those in our state that need the most help.”Anna Wolfe, investigative reporter
Before publishing its investigative series “The Backchannel,” which reveals Phil Bryant’s entanglement with Mississippi’s welfare scandal, Mississippi Today sat down with the former governor to discuss his leadership in the state’s safety net programs.
We initially published the portion of the interview in which Bryant discussed the stock offers he received from retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre and a Florida neuroscientist, whose companies received more than $2 million in allegedly stolen welfare funds from the state of Mississippi.
We also asked Bryant to explain how he influenced his welfare director to fund specific vendors; his connection to a WWE family and religious welfare-funded programs; his now-defunct early childhood and foster care initiatives; and the ways he encouraged welfare officials to pay special attention to his great-nephew.
Below is the remainder of the interview, edited for length and clarity.
MT: Pivoting to the overarching issues at DHS. So, there was money that the defendants allegedly stole and then there was $77 million that the auditors say was misspent. And this is a major departmental failure.
MT: When did you find out about the overall breach?
MT: Because the tip that you relayed was a small thing about John Davis and Brett DiBiase, correct?
Bryant: Yeah, when (State Auditor) Shad White — didn’t Shad report that at some time?
My answer is I don’t remember. I don’t remember when I read it, but I read in the news somewhere there was some $70 million dollars.
MT: Yeah, ‘cause I’ve always cared more about the overarching breach. I’m calling it a breach—
MT: —because there were dozens and dozens of people who had a hand in misspending $77 million. That wasn’t a few employees stealing money from the agency. Two people are not accountable for that entire scheme. So, you served as auditor for more than 10 years. So, you know about spending protocols and I’m wondering why you think you didn’t know about the overall welfare breach sooner?
Bryant: I wish I had. Because I depend on the state auditor. That’s all you can do, and the internal controls. I mean, you depend on audits, you depend on federal audits. Again, I’m thinking surely CMS comes in here with their auditors and audit these funds and the state auditors in here audit these funds. And again, let’s not forget the attorney general, who has a lawyer sitting in there every day—
MT: I know, it blows my mind.
Bryant: I mean, didn’t somebody see something? That’s what — it blew my mind. Like, how could this happen? How could everybody have missed this?
MT: And I want to ask you, because you were the executive, you were the top official in the state, and you oversaw that department.
Bryant: Because no one ever came to me — well I was over a lot of departments. So, it’s impossible to determine what’s going on at DEQ and the Department of Public Safety and Human Services and MDA. Is somebody in there doing something they shouldn’t be? And the reason we put internal controls in and the state auditor is to do that, because the governor can’t sit there and independently go and try to determine if money’s being properly spent or not spent. I didn’t have the capacity to do that. I didn’t have the personnel to go and do that. That’s why we depend on oversight committees from the Legislature. So, every year there was a budget that went to Human Services. Wouldn’t the oversight committee of the Legislature say, “Okay, we want to see how your spending is going. Show us where you’re spending your money. Show us all the grants that you have.” Don’t they do that?
MT: What is that committee?
Bryant: There is a, well, there’s appropriations committee. But I believe there’s a DHS oversight committee. Am I right about that?
MT: I’m not familiar with this.
Bryant: I think there is an oversight committee, but check me and make sure I’m right. But even the appropriations process. When I used to sit on the Ways and Means Committee, and the joint legislative budget process, they would come in with stacks, not just Human Services, but every agency, “Here’s my expenditures. Here’s where it’s going. Here’s the cars that we bought.” And you could review them. So, no one caught that during the appropriations process, during the audit process, the attorney general, but I was supposed to catch it? None of them caught it, but I’m, being governor, and I’m supposed to catch it?
MT: Well, you were in direct communication with John Davis as your subordinate.
Bryant: And John Davis, every time I talked to John Davis, said, “Boy, we’re doing so good. I’m traveling around the country, talking to other people about how good Mississippi is.”
MT: Right, like when he went to Congress in June of 2019.
Bryant: Yeah. And he was literally testifying — I was told, again, I can’t go out and independently verify all of it — that he was testifying to Congress about the effectiveness of the Mississippi program the day I called him and said, “You need to get back here.” Wasn’t he testifying before Congress?
MT: You called him the day he came back, I think.
Bryant: Maybe it was a day or two.
MT: You were concerned with the travel.
Bryant: When this first came up, I said, “Well, let me talk to John Davis. Let’s get John Davis down here and find out what this is about.” And they said, “Well, he’s in Washington. And oh, by the way” — and I want to be careful here. I shouldn’t talk anymore because he’s got a trial ahead of him. So I don’t want to—
MT: Well, his charges are pretty narrowly tailored to Brett DiBiase.
Bryant: Yeah. But the judge has been pretty determined about people not talking about these cases.
MT: Can I just say what I have gathered? I mean, he came back, and you were questioning him about who paid for his hotel room at Trump Plaza.
Bryant: To the best of my memory, and forgive me for the details, but the first I recollect was this payment that went to someone else’s P.O. Box.
MT: Went to John Davis’ P.O. Box.
Bryant: You said that, I didn’t. I mean, you’re right. You’re right.
MT: That was Brett DiBiase’s $48,000 contract.
Bryant: So that was the first thing. And normally when that happens, and I’m just saying hypothetically, there’s a ghost employee or someone splitting the paycheck. You send it to me. I cash it. We split it.
MT: Kickback, whatever.
Bryant: So I went directly and I want to believe, before I even talked to John Davis, I know I went directly to Shad White and said, “There’s something wrong here.” But the other thing is, I didn’t say, “And only look at this, Shad, state auditor. Don’t look at anything else over there.”
MT: So, there’s two pretty different things, here, with money that was taken through fraudulent means, as is outlined in the indictments and then millions and millions that flew out the door unaccounted for. Those are, kind of, different things. The millions and millions that flew out of the door primarily flew through Families First for Mississippi, which was run by two non-profits.
Bryant: North and south?
MT: They both had — north was like $15 million, I think.
Bryant: A lot of money.
MT: So, you heavily promoted that program. And when you look back, I wonder what you think happened.
Bryant: Well, let’s see, heavily promoted. I would go to things that I was invited to that sounded good. The food center over by the medical center, that sounded like a really good thing. And the staff would come in and, oh, the guy that owns the restaurants—
MT: Jeff Good.
Bryant: Yeah. I thought Jeff was doing a marvelous job in Jackson and I really liked him. So I said, “Well, sure, I’ll go. Jeff’s got a program over there. I’ll go.” I don’t know that I realize it’s somebody was coming from Families First. I—
MT: So how do you think John Davis started sending tens of millions of dollars to these two nonprofits without you knowing about it?
Bryant: Because I would not be looking at the books. I would not be there going through the audit material of the Department of Human Services.
MT: But even just seeing what’s happening in the community and the banners and the signs and the presence that Families First had. That didn’t strike you—
Bryant: I was being governor. I just did not try to go through and see what that looked like. It would be like saying, well, if people are buying a lot of Tahoes out at the Department of Public Safety. I don’t go audit automobiles. I’m just, sorry, I didn’t notice a lot of the signs. I went to a couple of events, and they all seem very nice, events that were going to help the community.
But no, I didn’t, I cannot go and do an audit independently in an agency. That’s just not the governor’s responsibility. I don’t have the capacity to do that. So, I depended on the auditor to do it.
MT: In your communication with the welfare director, John Davis — you talked earlier about not having a say in funding decisions and spending at the agencies that your office is over — but you would say things like, “Any way we can help these guys?” with an attachment to an organization’s funding request.
Bryant: A question.
MT: There’s one example that I can think of where you asked him about funding a specific vendor and he responded that he would reach out to fund them that day. And this shows the influence that you had over your involvement in the welfare department’s spending and—
Bryant: Isn’t that a question?
MT: —and in his decision making.
Bryant: I mean, here’s what would happen—
MT: He responded saying that he would “fund them today.” And as a former auditor, you know that an agency can’t unilaterally direct money to a specific vendor without a proper procurement process.
Bryant: If they owe them money they can.
MT: If they owe them money?
Bryant: If they owe them money.
MT: We’re not talking about agencies that—
Bryant: If a vendor calls and says, “Department of Human Services hadn’t paid me.” And, and I go, “Well, let me let me check.” And I text John and say, “Have we paid these guys?” And he said, “I did it today.” I’m not sure that’s it, but I can assure you, I can assure you, that I would have never said, “Go around the bid process and pay these guys.”
MT: They didn’t even have a bid process, so if you asked John—
Bryant: Who were they, can you tell me who they were?
MT: One I can think of was Willowood Developmental Center.
Bryant: Oh yeah.
MT: There was T.K. Martin at Mississippi State University
MT: You had also asked about funding for Save the Children.
Bryant: Yep. Okay. Because those are very near and dear to me. Now, they’re nonprofits. They’re organizations. Save the Children. And I would ask him, “Can we help fund Save the Children? Can we fund this program at Mississippi State?” Because if I remember, there were going to be like a hundred people laid off at Mississippi State. And it was always a question: “Can we fund these?” And if he would say “No,” then fine. It was a question. And you said the other one was?
Bryant: Willowood. Look, I did fundraising for Willowood. We did it back, me and Mike Moore and a bunch of folks. They do phenomenal work. And that’s, yes, I hope we funded — I will tell you, I would have asked for funding for Willowood.
MT: But the point is that he responded, “Yes, I will reach out to fund them today,” which shows some favoritism.
Bryant: If it’s wrong to try to help Willowood and those poor children out there, then I will have to say I was wrong, but I don’t think I was. I think that those people, those wonderful people at Willowood, I would do whatever I could to try to help them.
MT: It’s more about what it shows about how John Davis was running the agency and the way that he would make these unilateral decisions, without seeing an application from them first, for example.
Bryant: I would ask him when people would call me and they would say, “Willowood gets funded by Human Services every year. We hadn’t got funded this year.” And I would say, “Wow, let me check and see.” And that’s what I would do. I wouldn’t pick organizations and say, “fund this one, fund this one, fund this one.”
MT: Don’t you think that kind of discourse was putting pressure on your agency director to please his boss?
Bryant: I think a question from me saying, “Can we fund these folks?” is just that, a question, of trying to inquire about wonderful programs, like the one at Mississippi State. I think it was a children’s program, an educational program?
MT: It’s a clinic. Autism and dyslexia clinic.
Bryant: Yeah, autism. Autism. So yeah, there’s the pattern of, I cared very much about these children.
MT: Actually, an email about this is cited in the audit. It’s in a footnote regarding improper payments to T.K. Martin, where John Davis sent you an email saying that DHS could not fund it because it would not fit in the guidelines of TANF or any other grant that DHS administers.
Bryant: I’m glad he did.
MT: Then he came back a couple of weeks later and texted you and said, “We found a way to fund T.K. Martin Center” on your request.
Bryant: Perhaps he did it. And I hope it was proper and legal and ethical and moral because I remember people at Mississippi State, and I don’t remember who, calling and saying, “This is a wonderful program for these poor children and we’re going to lose it.”
MT: There was a lot of pressure on John Davis at that time to fund TK Martin.
Bryant: And I think it stopped at one point, didn’t it?
MT: And he told you that he would fund them. He told you that he told them that they were being funded before DHS ever saw an application from them
Bryant: But hasn’t DHS been funding them for—
MT: No. It’s an autism clinic. They don’t get DHS funding. They shouldn’t get DHS funding according to guidelines. They were getting DHS funding through Families First, but DHS had no record of that because they didn’t require Families First to send any expenditures back to them.
Bryant: I remember there was a program at Mississippi State that we terminated and a lot of people were very frustrated over that.
MT: There was a child care grant that ended up going to them, that Jacob Black signed after John Davis left. I don’t know why they would be receiving a child care grant.
Bryant: I don’t know that. But I was sensitive to children and if we could help fund them, I would have appreciated doing that, trying to fund needy children, autistic children.
MT: Right. And I’m not suggesting that the cause wasn’t good. It’s more about what it says about the agency’s operations, and if that’s how it was operating then—
Bryant: So, they could have funded hundreds and hundreds, and I called him three times and said, “Can you, maybe, check on these children?”
MT: I mean, I don’t know what you called him for that I don’t have text messages for.
Editor’s note: Mississippi Today only possesses text messages between Phil Bryant and John Davis for a four-month span during his three-and-a-half-year administration.
Bryant: About three times. I wouldn’t sit there every day and say, “Let me call.” I had very limited knowledge about all of those programs. You just cannot, as governor, keep up with that many moving parts.
When somebody calls and says, “I’ve got a children’s program, like Willowood, or a challenged adult program, and we’re going to have to put these people in the streets,” I would make a phone call. I would say, “Let me see what I can do,” because I don’t want that to happen. I don’t want these people to be without a place to stay.
MT: In the same line as, you know, favoritism, nepotism: Davis and his staff took a special interest in your great-nephew, Noah McRae. They talked about him as if he was an employee of the agency, but he was receiving payments from Families First, Nancy New’s nonprofit. You also asked Davis for help getting Noah into treatment. And Nancy had previously said that she paid for Noah to go to rehab. Can you explain the Noah situation? Was this an inappropriate use of the state agency?
Bryant: I don’t think so because he was indigent. He and his father had moved here after a divorce from North Carolina. His father had no job. He had no means of support. I want to be very careful here because, he was very fragile, in a very threatening, emotional state. The child was. And we were trying to help him. He had no means of support. His father was unemployed. They were divorced. There was nothing. They had nothing. They were coming here trying to start from that. And he had a very difficult life. Mother divorced. Drugs. Heartbreaking story.
So we tried to help him. Where are the resources to help someone who doesn’t have any money, who is a juvenile, who needs treatment, who may be self-destructive? So yes, I tried to help him.
MT: You know about Nancy paying for his rehab?
Bryant: I do not.
MT: She was receiving state contracts. So she would have a reason to, you know, want to be favored.
Bryant: But hopefully there would be someone that would fit — I mean, his situation would have fit the support within DHS.
MT: Well, that’s what I don’t understand because Families First didn’t make direct payments to poor people. Families First didn’t have a program where people could come get cash assistance. So I don’t know why he was getting paid by Nancy’s nonprofit.
Bryant: I don’t know either. And I didn’t realize that. I mean, he was going to her school. So there was a hope that his special needs could be treated there. He was, let me be careful, this is his mental and emotional health. And he’s in jail now, has a 9-month-old child. I mean, this is a tragic situation with this young man and his family. I don’t know how she was paying that out of that. I think he could have easily fit into a category of getting support, if you’ve got an indigent child and we didn’t want to put him into the foster care system because his father was here trying to find a job, trying to get a home, trying to get a place for them to live in.
MT: I mean, he was an adult by the time he was working for Families First or being looked after by DHS. And I don’t know why John Davis, as director of an agency would have kind of a direct line. Someone in that position. Why would John Davis have been texting your great-nephew?
Bryant: Um, because he was my great-nephew.
Bryant: And I’m sure I told John at some point, “This is a tragedy and we’re worried about his health,” and John would have said, “Let me help you with him. Let me see what I can do for this child.” And I would’ve probably said, “Thank you because I’m afraid we might lose him.” He is at that point.
MT: And you don’t know about how Nancy assisted with that?
Bryant: No, I don’t. John said, “Let us help.” You get him in her school. And I don’t think that lasted long.
MT: Did you have kind of a familial relationship with John Davis, for him to be helping out your nephew like that? I don’t understand—
Bryant: Yes, I mean, I knew John Davis well. I mean, I knew all my directors well. When I would see them, we would interact and talk, “How are things going,” and—
MT: But for him to take your young family member under his wing?
Bryant: Would I have asked John Davis to help a child in that condition? Or if he offered to do it, would I have accepted it? Yes.
MT: But Nancy New paying for him to go to rehab?
Bryant: I don’t remember that happening.
MT: So you’d be surprised — would you be surprised?
Bryant: I wouldn’t be surprised.
MT: Right, because why would she do that?
Bryant: I don’t know. If she had, I would have thought that they, maybe, were funds — she didn’t serve any children? — so it would not have been unusual, I would have thought, for her to pay for someone going to a rehab in the state of Mississippi, you know, like at Region 8 or somewhere like that.
I mean, I don’t follow all of the spending. I don’t know all the guidelines, but for an agency that works with the Department of Human Services, and I don’t remember her doing it, but saying, “We think we can pay for a rehab of this very fragile, indigent child. We think that’s the right thing to do,” would not have shocked me. I would not have said, “Whoa, wait a minute, let me go read the code books and make sure we can do all of that.”
I would have said, “Well, probably she can because it’s an indigent child that has huge emotional problems.”
Editor’s note: When Bryant’s great-nephew Noah McRae left prison and Bryant sought help from Davis on his behalf, McRae was an adult.
MT: Yeah, that’s not — young men who are poor are basically out of luck—
Bryant: They are.
MT: —at DHS, so—
Bryant: Oh at DHS?
MT: So, it’s unusual for someone to have gotten that kind of support from a nonprofit director with TANF funds or any other DHS funds.
Bryant: I just simply did not know that. Like I said, I saw the school that was out there, and thought there’s a lot of those children being served. I’m sure—
Editor’s note: Nancy New’s school, New Summit School, did serve children with mental health disorders, but it was a for-profit school and charged tuition.
MT: Yeah. It’s sensitive and it’s relevant because, I mean, obviously the nonprofit paying for someone to go to rehab is at the center of the criminal charges with Brett DiBiase going to Malibu.
Bryant: And I just simply didn’t know that. And I think, again, he’s not my child. He’s a great-nephew by marriage, if you will. But we were just simply trying to help the young man. If somebody did something wrong in trying to help them, I’m sorry and would be disappointed.
MT: So, what exactly did you ask John Davis to do for Noah?
Bryant: I don’t remember asking John Davis or having a conversation about Noah at all. But I said, if he said, “Let me see if I can help through Human Services,” knowing he’s Human Services director, knowing I’ve got this fragile child, I would’ve more than likely said, “Thank you. Whatever you can do to help this child inside — you know, again — the guidelines. He needs help.”
And I remember, I think, somewhere the discussion of Regional 8 Mental Health Center?
Bryant: So do they charge indigent people who go there?
MT: They work on a sliding scale.
(Bryant’s partner interjected, redirecting Bryant to answer what he knew about how welfare officials were assisting Noah).
Bryant: Very, very little about how it all took place, who funded it, it was — I, just believing that Human Services, and even Families First, had the capacity to help an indigent child who needed mental health. If you had come up to me and said, “Do you think they can help him?” I would’ve said, “Well, of course they can.” That’s what they do. What they should be doing. The population they should be helping.
MT: Were you following his journey through the legal system at that time? He was out on parole.
Bryant: No, no. I thought this happened when he was in high school.
MT: I’m talking about when he got out of prison in December of 2018, and then started working, in whatever capacity, with Families First in January of 2019. You asked John Davis for help getting him into treatment in April of 2019.
MT: So that’s the timeline.
Bryant: I don’t remember. I remember struggling trying to help this young man. I didn’t know he was out of prison. I don’t remember the timeline, but there was no, again, no benefit to us whatsoever of helping this child except trying to save his life.
I mean, Anna, if that’s a bad thing—
MT: It’s more about why Nancy New would have been helping your great-nephew.
Bryant: I don’t know. I don’t know. Maybe John asked her, maybe she interacted with the child at some point.
MT: And you got him into New Summit earlier on. When he was kid, you got into New Summit.
Bryant: I may have said, “New Summit would have been a good place for him.” I don’t remember anyone sitting down having these conversations.
MT: That would have been several years ago.
Bryant: Yeah. All I remember is trying to help this young man who had no means of support, who had later been in jail, who was just struggling. And we were trying to help. Now if they can’t do that, they should be able to. If Human Services can’t help these type of children, then what good are they?
MT: Yeah, I mean, when we’re talking about treatment, you know, if you’re talking about drug treatment, you signed a law making it so that people couldn’t access the TANF program unless they got a drug test.
MT: So that’s kind of—
Bryant: We were trying to identify who was on drugs so we could treat ‘em.
MT: But DHS never paid for people to go to treatment, except for when it was done in secret.
Bryant: I did not know that and I think they should have. And I think that they should be allowed. Again, I don’t know all of the restrictions, but if Human Services can’t pay for indigent children, for mental health services and drug rehab, who does?
MT: I mean, that would be like Medicaid or the Department of Mental Health, and the Community Mental Health Centers.
Bryant: And I’m not sure he didn’t access some of that. His father was working with him during that time. And they may have. I remember his father telling me he had gone and filled out a lot of paperwork with maybe the Department of Mental Health? I’m not sure what, they were trying to access some help for him.
MT: The number of families receiving direct payments dropped 75% during your administration. And the reason that’s kind of ironic to me is ‘cause getting money directly into the homes of poor families was the entire concept of the Family First Initiative to prevent the removal of poor children from their families, which your wife co-chaired, if you recall.
And I remember listening to the radio one time, and SuperTalk was interviewing Nancy New and John Davis. And the interviewer said, you know, “That makes perfect sense to me because if we’re just going to pay foster families to take care of these children, why not just give that money to the parent?” Right?
MT: And of course from everything we’ve seen, and everything we know about what happened with Families First, that didn’t occur. Money did not go to poor families. A lot of that money was instead spent on campaigns, and initiatives, and motivational speeches. Teddy DiBiase, For example, he was paid $3 million in welfare funds for doing things like speaking at your Healthy Teens Rally.
Editor’s note: Nancy New’s nonprofit paid $5 million to lease the athletic facilities on University of Southern Mississippi’s campus so it could conduct its programming there. It used the lease for exactly one event, according to a records request: the governor’s 2018 Healthy Teens Rally.
MT: Can you describe how these kinds of purchases specifically fit into your priorities for your welfare department? And talk about the amount of money that was going into programs like Healthy Teens, or Healthy Teens was used as justification for—
Bryant: I think Healthy Teens was a good program. And I was very proud of it, meeting with the young, healthy teens and seeing teen pregnancy reduce by some 24, 25%. Again, I wasn’t there to say who’s spending money on advertisements. I didn’t get to attend that rally, so I don’t know that DiBiase, if he did come and speak, I would not have said, “Let’s go pay him for it.”
I just did not control the day to day operations, I could not control the day to day operations of the Department of Human Services or Families First, either north or south. I just did not have time as governor to go and do that. But I would have hoped – and one of the reasons that we created the children’s services, we broke that off so we could spend more time helping children, so we could fit more foster children in the program.
Editor’s note: He’s referring to the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services, which was created in 2016 and oversees the state’s foster care system, which was then and still is the subject of an ongoing court settlement due to its failure to protect children in its custody. One of the goals is to reduce the foster care population, not fit more children into the program.
And we increased the number of adoptions because we were able to go out and find attorneys, like at Mississippi College, to donate their time, so that we could get them through the court system and get them in a forever home. I mean, we were working constantly, I was, trying to find families.
Deborah was reading all across the state of Mississippi and hugging every child all across the state of Mississippi. She just received the Winter-Reed Award, like last month. So, it wasn’t as if we were ignoring children. We were doing everything we could to try and protect them.
MT: Except for putting direct resources into the home.
Bryant: And I did not know that was not happening. John reported to me one time that a number of people had dropped off, and I said, “Tell me why.” And he told me that they had not reapplied.
MT: Yeah. And I’m not just talking specifically about people receiving cash assistance. I also mean children who are at risk of being taken from their home, through the Family First Initiative.
Bryant: Right. And that’s why we created the Child Protection Service.
MT: Right. I’ll get to that.
Bryant: So we could do a better job of that. Alright, we gotta, yeah, I gotta go see my grandchildren.
MT: So Ted DiBiase Sr. said that you selected his ministry to be the face—
Bryant: That’s not true.
MT: —of his faith-based initiative.
Bryant: I don’t know where that came from. I don’t know that I’ve ever met Mr. DiBiase. It seems like we ran across each other in an airport one time.
MT: And you went to the movie set of his son, Teddy.
MT: So you were closer with the sons than the father?
Bryant: I think he invited me to come out to a movie set and we were promoting making movies in Mississippi. Yeah, Ted came and met with me several times about making movies in Mississippi. I remember talking to him a couple of times. I went to one movie set.
Bryant: But no, I didn’t select Mr. DiBiase—
MT: Yeah, he said you selected him to be the face of his faith based initiative.
Bryant: That’s not true. But again, I would have looked at Mr. DiBiase and his mission as a good thing, not realizing he was getting a large amount of money for it.
Bryant: So if someone came up and said, you know, “Ted DiBiase, The Million Dollar Man, has this wonderful mission where he’s teaching Christian principles,” I would have said, “Great. That sounds like a really good idea.” And Anna, that’s what happened most of the time. People would tell me part of a story. “DiBiase is out preaching. He’s a Christian man. He’s carrying the message around.” Fantastic. “Oh, by the way, we’re paying him a million dollars.” Hold up. That doesn’t sound good. Somebody else had to make those decisions.
MT: I mean, why do you think there was the prevalence of that at the department at that time? I don’t know that I’ve heard of multi-million dollar contracts for those kinds of services prior to the last few years of your time in office.
Bryant: I couldn’t tell you. And that was, again, John Davis’ decision, not mine. I surely didn’t pick Mr. DiBiase, and say, “Let’s go pay him millions of dollars.”
MT: Okay. Just really quick, sorry, on the point of Family First: You represented to the public that the state was embracing the Family First Prevention Services Act.
Bryant: I think that’s right.
MT: Remember the Family First Summit.
Bryant: Wasn’t that a federal act?
MT: Yeah, it’s a federal act that puts more resources into the state for prevention services, so not taking a kid from the home.
MT: And you represented that the state was going to be a national model for embracing that Act. And it was all about keeping the kid in the home, right? This is 2018 timeframe. But you didn’t allow the Act to take effect in Mississippi. And to this day, the state has not submitted a Family First plan to the federal government, therefore none of those resources have flown into the state, at all. Can you explain–
Bryant: Whose responsibility is it for submitting that?
Bryant: Okay. But who at the state should fill out the paperwork and submit it back to get the funding?
MT: The head of CPS.
Bryant: I’m sorry. Oh, Child Protection Services?
Bryant: I cannot imagine — and you can go talk to the two Supreme Court Judges I appointed — but I cannot imagine they would not have worked diligently to try to get those funds.
MT: I mean, they believe that the executive branch was putting barriers up for them doing that. There was a letter from—
Bryant: That’s just hard for me to believe.
MT: There was a letter from the court to that effect. Sent in late 2018.
Bryant: I’ll have to go back and research that. I don’t know if there were something within that act that we later found out was offensive. I just, I can’t answer that, but I know we worked on an early childhood grant. We were able to get $50 million.
MT: No, we never got $50 million under that — you’re talking about the Preschool Development Grant?
MT: The $10.6 million?
MT: Yeah. We never got any more money after that. They rejected our application.
MT: I was actually going to ask about that if I had time. The Family-Based Unified and Integrated Early Childhood System–
MT: The cornerstone of which were the Early Childhood Academies–
MT: —that were supposed to get the childcare centers up to the comprehensive designation.
MT: So, you’ve touted that program, even a year after you left office, talked about how much it accomplished. The $10.6 million. No childcare centers ever got the comprehensive designation and the whole system later was abandoned and is not currently in place.
Bryant: I would refer you to Dr. Laurie Smith on that. Dr. Smith managed that. And, from every report I got, was doing a very good job. Our intent was to go with the community colleges, if I remember this program correctly, and get the teachers at those daycare centers up to some level because we just had high school graduates coming in there. And the money went to the community colleges.
MT: That’s right.
Bryant: And the community colleges didn’t do the training?
MT: It didn’t happen on a level that the centers were able to get the comprehensive designation, which is what was important because it was going to increase their voucher amount.
Bryant: Then we would have to check with the community colleges and find out why they weren’t doing that.
MT: And they were investigated by the feds over that grant as well. Did you know that we didn’t even—
Bryant: And what’s been the outcome of that? I don’t run — there is a community college board. So they would have been in charge of that. Our effort would have been trying to get that funding to them and them meet the standards to get — my goal, my hope was to get some level of education for these young women that are coming in and keeping 20 3-year-olds in the room. And we went and sought grants that we could go through the committee. Now, if you’re telling me some government program didn’t work properly, I’m not saying that they always do.
MT: But you did say that that one did.
Bryant: And I was told that it was.
MT: How do you know if someone over a program is telling you–
Bryant: You don’t.
MT: Oh my—
Bryant: It’s impossible.
Bryant: When you come in and somebody says, “This program’s wonderful and it’s working well,” you have to take the director or the executive director of the community colleges’ word for that.
MT: Did you know that they put Austin Smith, John Davis’ nephew, over that grant at the community college board?
MT: Did you know that we didn’t even spend all of the $10.6 million that you’ve talked about in speeches?
Bryant: I didn’t.
MT: We had to give a chunk of it back.
Bryant: I just tried to get it and hope that it would be properly—
I can’t, Anna, I can’t be responsible for every failure in state government. The governor can’t do that. And you’ve tried. For example, not one economic development program that we incentivized has failed. Not one program in eight years that we incentivized through Mississippi department of economic development has failed.
You look back in history, there’s been $60, $70 million dollars of programs that went under. Who’s responsible for that? Not one of my failed. Not one. The Department of Public Safety had four or five schools. They ran like clockwork. We got more officers on the street saving lives than anybody else. We were selected as one of the outstanding states in public education. That law right there put more third graders through school than anything else.
(Bryant pointed at the 2013 third grade reading gate bill hanging on his office wall.)
We finished, last year, fourth in the nation for progress in reading. So if I’m going to get the blame for everything in the state of Mississippi, give me a little credit for something. ‘Cause a lot of good things happened. Now, did we let, did a text get by me every now and then? Absolutely. Did people do things at agencies that they shouldn’t? Sure they did.
And I think it’s happened in every administration in the history of this state. That’s why you have really good auditors. But just look at the things that we accomplished before you finish an article that says how I manipulated all of this, as some guy sitting in an ivory tower up there saying, “Oh, let me move all of these pieces around.”
As governor, you’re trying to just get to work, solve problems, help people’s lives, make Mississippi a better place to live. Educate children. Try to expand healthcare. Build a new hospital, a new medical school. Build a new nursing school. Get more people so they can take care of poor indigent people in the state of Mississippi.
And if somebody doesn’t do his job, it’s impossible or hard for me to stop and go back and check all of that. It’s thousands of people, 3 million people and thousands of employees. And I’m just sorry I couldn’t manage every one of them.
MT: Yeah. I just think that the failure at DHS and the breadth of the corruption at that agency was catastrophic. And I just can’t understand, or I can’t conceive that you wouldn’t be held accountable for some of that.
Bryant: Because I didn’t run that agency. And I’m the guy that called the people in to prove that that happened and to get it stopped. Okay. Here’s what I can say. Alright, I didn’t see that because as governor, I’m at 30,000 feet. When I did begin to see it, when I did see it, I called in an auditor. I hired the SAC of the FBI. We said, “We’ve got to get a comprehensive forensic audit in here.” Now, maybe if I had seen it three years earlier, I would have done all of that then. But as soon as I got to the point to where I realized something was not right, I did what I should have done. I called it the state auditor.
No, you can say, “Well you should have done it a lot earlier,” but you’ve never been governor and you don’t know how complex and busy that job is. And how you have to depend on other people.
MT: I’m not so much talking about the P.O. Box or, you know, $48,000. I’m talking about—
Bryant: It wasn’t just that though. That was just the beginning of it. I didn’t call him in and just say, “Find out about the P.O. Box.” “Find out about everything.” Chris Freeze—
MT: The sheer lack of controls, the sheer lack of oversight—
MT: —that’s what I’m talking about.
Bryant: Stunning, yeah.
MT: Would you agree that the welfare system in Mississippi was flawed or broken?
Bryant: Oh, absolutely. Now I know that it was flawed or broken, but again, think about what information I was getting and I couldn’t independently go verify it. John Davis was telling me, “I go all over the country talking to these organizations about how great this system is.” He was testifying before Congress, the day he was in Washington—
MT: I know, he gave one example of how the state is helping people find self-sufficiency that is not food stamps—
Bryant: But, Anna, unless somebody—
MT: He cited “Law of 16,” his motivational speaking and self-help lecture that he was having Teddy DiBiase run for $3 million.
Bryant: I didn’t attend that but when somebody testifies—
MT: How does that happen in broad daylight?
Bryant: When somebody testifies before Congress on the positive things, I have to believe that positive things are happening. When I see more people going to work at any time in Mississippi’s history, you’ve got to feel like some of them getting off the welfare roll and getting good jobs. When you’re creating 12 — I don’t know how many jobs we created — hundreds of thousands of new jobs so that people can get a job and live the American dream.
MT: You did talk about how DHS was “getting people to work.” Did you ever see any statistics that bear that out? How many people received jobs through DHS?
Bryant: I probably did, but—
MT: I don’t think I’ve ever seen that. I don’t think that exists.
Bryant: I would have to look back and see, but what I did know is we reached 4.7% unemployment while we were maintaining or losing population.
MT: I mean, does that take into account the workforce participation rate?
Editor’s note: Mississippi’s workforce participation rate, in some cases a more revealing statistic about the strength of a state’s labor force, reached a historic low of 55% during Bryant’s administration.
Bryant: Yes. I mean, yes, it was. And it was taking into consideration that people were getting real jobs and they were getting better jobs and they were graduating from high school at the highest level ever. When I left office, our graduation rate surpassed the national average. Surpassed the national average.
Editor’s note: At about 2.5 hours, Bryant’s partner interjected to end the interview.
Bryant: Look, should I have caught some of that? Absolutely. Did I do anything wrong? No.
Bryant’s partner asked to clarify a previous question about whether the former governor should be held accountable for the MDHS scandal.
MT: What is your role? How much are you responsible for what happened at MDHS — getting to the heart of that question.
Bryant: Look, I’ll take my responsibility. Yeah, I was the governor. I wish I had been able to catch it. The moment I did, I called in the state auditor. Not just for a check. That was just the beginning, but go everywhere.
I never called him and said, “Just look at this and don’t look at anything else.” We’re going to find that bill where we put an independent auditor in there.
But yeah, I’ll take responsibility if we’ll also recognize the good things that happened in this state while I was governor and the hard work we put into it. Deborah and I worked 12, 15 hours. No, you don’t want to say that. We were thankful to be able to do it. But Joey (Songy, former chief of staff, current business partner) will tell you, I mean, we worked 15 hours a day. It wasn’t to try to get rich. It was because we cared about the people in the state of Mississippi, and we wanted them to do better.
Did we, did I miss some things? Absolutely. And could I go back? I would bet, dare to say, that at some point in your organization, somebody would have said, “I wish we would have caught that. We missed that.” Things happen. Bad things happen, good things happen. You can’t control every one of them. You hope and pray.
And I’m a man of faith, Anna, of strong faith. I don’t go about that using it, but I would do nothing to violate my faith, my strong belief that I have a savior and he’s forgiven me and continues to forgive my sins and my failures. And to throw all of that away over, what, some paper stock? I don’t, I don’t think so. That just wouldn’t happen.
Thank y’all, gotta go see my grandchildren. They think Papa’s a pretty good guy.