Former Gov. Phil Bryant (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The stink of the largest public embezzlement scheme in Mississippi history goes all the way to the Governor’s Mansion.

And two years after the scandal exploded, there’s no evidence that those at the highest levels are being held accountable or that the system they manipulated is being changed to protect taxpayers in the future.

Tens of millions of dollars in federal welfare funds were misspent or stolen by state officials and contractors. Most reprehensible, that money was specifically intended to help the poorest people in the nation’s poorest state.

Bombshell revelations in Mississippi Today’s “The Backchannel” investigation, which revealed former Gov. Phil Bryant’s role in the scandal through many of his never-before-published text messages and other communications, raise grave questions about the origins of the misspending and the thoroughness of the investigation that ensued.

Are those truly responsible for the fraud, including those who allowed it to happen, really being held accountable, and why aren’t our leaders doing something — anything — to fix this?

Text messages show that Gov. Bryant — who had the sole, statutory responsibility to oversee the policy and spending of the state’s welfare agency during his eight years in office — was at best asleep at the wheel while millions in taxpayer funds designated for poor Mississippians flew to the pocketbooks of many people in his orbit. He admitted as much in our three-hour interview on April 2.

“Look, I’ll take my responsibility,” Bryant acknowledged. “Yeah, I was the governor. I wish I had been able to catch it.”

The Mississippi Today investigation also revealed that Bryant, after he left office, appeared poised to accept stock in a company that received welfare funds in exchange for the help he provided the company while he was governor. Bryant now says he had not carefully read the text messages he received or gave much thought to his own replies.

“Now I can clearly see why you’re following those trails. And it doesn’t look good,” Bryant said. “Should I have caught it? Absolutely. I should’ve caught it. Was I extremely busy as governor? I can’t even describe to you what it is like on a daily basis as governor.”

Is the excuse of being inattentive or busy enough to absolve the governor of blame or allow him to avoid a more thorough investigation? His administration never would have been that lenient on welfare recipients allegedly cheating the system.

Another major revelation from “The Backchannel” is that Bryant pulled strings with welfare officials to get help for his troubled great-nephew — all while setting welfare policy that made it nearly impossible for other poor Mississippians to get the same kind of assistance.

“I remember struggling trying to help this young man,” Bryant told Mississippi Today of helping his great-nephew. “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 …”

State Auditor Shad White, who led the state criminal investigation without giving federal prosecutors any heads up before the first arrests were made, told Mississippi Today in October 2021 that he had not seen evidence that Bryant broke any law.

But White’s deep personal and political ties to Bryant — and the timing and announcement of the arrests more than two years ago — raise serious questions about the impartiality of that investigation. White, a former Bryant staffer and campaign manager who the governor later appointed state auditor, said 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.

Some of the loudest public outcry following our reporting raises the questions: Shouldn’t Bryant, a former state auditor who himself probed federal welfare grants, have known the agency spending regulations? And could White possibly have conducted a fair investigation of his political mentor? 

Meanwhile, Mississippi lawmakers, who could drastically increase scrutiny of future welfare spending with a few meetings and the stroke of a pen, have ducked for cover, making no serious efforts in three legislative sessions to determine how this fraud occurred under their noses or to pass laws to ensure it won’t happen again.

Most members of the U.S. Congress, who annually appropriate the federal welfare funds that were stolen, don’t even appear to be aware that massive welfare fraud occurred in Mississippi and is almost certainly occurring in many other states.

Neither state nor federal lawmakers have held a single hearing to learn more about the depths of the fraud, how they could keep it from happening again or how to better spend the welfare money in the first place.

This fraud went under the radar for years because neither the state nor the federal government required Mississippi officials to show that the programs receiving welfare funds actually helped anyone. Regardless of how the funds were spent — and whether legal or not — the poor Mississippians who were supposed to receive the help got nothing. 

Current Gov. Tate Reeves and his state welfare leader have worked to assure the public they’ve added safeguards and stopped the generational rush of misspending at that agency. But they’re asking for a lot of faith from Mississippi taxpayers whose distrust of government was already high before Mississippi Today’s investigation.

When asked for comment on “The Backchannel” revelations about Bryant and what they say about the current welfare agency, Reeves said simply: “It is my view that that is an ongoing federal investigation, and it would not be appropriate for me to comment at this time.”

Those words aren’t likely to reassure Mississippi taxpayers.

An executive branch operating in secrecy misspent millions of dollars for personal or political gain while abandoning the state’s poor. State investigators made such questionable decisions during their probe that they are being publicly accused of a coverup. And lawmakers won’t pass laws to stop the fraud from occurring now and in the future.

Worst of all, the Mississippians who needed the stolen money the most were ignored. As far as we can tell, they’re still being ignored. How, in good conscience, can our elected officials continue to let this happen?

“There’s just such little oversight, so things like this (systemic fraud) can happen. It’s tragic and outrageous in light of the fact that families in Mississippi who live in poverty didn’t get the help they needed,” said Carol Burnett, founder of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative.

Burnett continued: “The amount of flexibility states have with this program could be used to the benefit of people who need it. The ultimate litmus test, I think, should be the state’s poverty rate. What have we as a state done to reduce poverty rather than just move people off the welfare rolls? Unfortunately, that poverty rate hasn’t moved really at all.”

Note: This editorial follows Mississippi Today’s “The Backchannel” investigation, which revealed former Gov. Phil Bryant’s involvement in the state’s sprawling welfare scandal.

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Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.