Gov. Tate Reeves speaks at the Neshoba County Fair on July 28, 2022. (Vickie D. King, Mississippi Today)

NESHOBA COUNTY FAIR — Gov. Tate Reeves and attorney Brad Pigott agree on one thing: that Pigott was dismissed from leading the state’s lawsuit to recoup millions of dollars in stolen or misspent welfare money because of politics.

Pigott said it was because he was looking into the roles of former Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, the USM Athletic Foundation and other powerful and connected people or entities Reeves and others didn’t want him looking at.

Reeves on Thursday said he signed off on firing Pigott because the attorney wasn’t up to the task, had a “political agenda” and wanted to be in the media spotlight.

“I think the way in which (Pigott) … has acted since they chose not to renew his contract shows exactly why many of us were concerned about the way in which he conducted himself in the year in which he was employed,” Reeves said at the Neshoba County Fair. “He seemed much more focused on the political side of things. He seemed much more interested in getting his name in print and hopefully bigger and bigger print, not just Mississippi stories. He wants this to go national, wants to talk to the press.”

Reeves’ welfare director initially said Pigott was dismissed in part because officials were blindsided by Pigott’s subpoena of the USM foundation communication. But emails obtained by Mississippi Today showed the agency and the state AG’s office were given drafts of the subpoena 10 days before he filed it.

READ MORE: Welfare head says surprise subpoena led to attorney’s firing. Emails show it wasn’t a surprise.

Pigott is a former federal prosecutor who was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi by former President Bill Clinton. As a prosecutor, Pigott led cases that took down the Dixie Mafia organized crime syndicate in Mississippi. In 2021, Pigott came out of retirement to lead the Mississippi Department of Human Services’ civil lawsuit seeking to recover a portion of the $77 million in stolen, misspent or unaccounted federal welfare dollars.

There are also state and federal criminal investigations pending in the case.

Pigott was fired a week after he filed subpoenas on the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation over $5 million in welfare dollars spent on a volleyball stadium. Pigott was seeking communications between the USM foundation, Bryant, Bryant’s wife, Deborah, and former NFL star Brett Favre involving the stadium.

Pigott declined comment on Reeves’ statements Thursday. But he has said he was fired on orders from Reeves to protect the USM Athletic Foundation. The foundation is comprised of many business and political leaders, including many large donors to Reeves’ campaign coffers. And repaying the welfare money spent on the volleyball stadium would be a big blow to USM athletics.

Reeves said the USM foundation or others might eventually be named in the state’s lawsuit, but that Pigott got out over his skis with the subpoenas. He said the state is focused primarily on suing to recover funds specifically tagged as fraud, waste or abuse by a forensic audit firm the state hired.

That audit firm noted in its reports to the state that it might have identified more fraud, waste and abuse if it had not been limited in what and who it could examine in its probe.

Reeves said that typically, civil lawsuits to claw back stolen money come after criminal investigation and prosecution is concluded. But he said criminal investigations are ongoing by the U.S. Department of Justice, FBI, Health and Human Services fraud investigators and others. Reeves said that, as for the state’s lawsuit to claw back money, if more fraud by more entities is uncovered, “they will be sued at the proper time,” and that Pigott’s dismissal will not affect that.

“The Department of Justice has 100,000 people working for them,” Reeves said. “Do you actually think that one lawyer (Pigott) who is a sole practitioner that is semi-retired will thwart the investigation here? They are totally and completely separate, and any accusation otherwise is all about getting clicks on the internet and not finding out the truth. My job as governor is to make sure taxpayers are protected. What the attorney in question here has proven is that he is interested not in what’s best for the state, but in getting his name in print or on the computer.”

State Auditor Shad White’s office first discovered welfare misspending and brought the first charges in the case more than two years ago. On Thursday at the Neshoba Fair, White reiterated his take that firing Pigott was a mistake that could shake the public’s confidence that the case is being thoroughly investigated and all responsible will be held accountable.

White, a former staffer and campaign manager for Bryant, has faced his own questions about his ties to the former governor and whether he would thoroughly investigate his former boss.

“What I said was that I think firing (Pigott) was a mistake,” White said. “From the very beginning of the DHS case, my position was that it is important to have a bipartisan group look at the case, and a variety of prosecutors and law enforcement entities, because we need to give the public confidence we are getting to the bottom of the case and looking at every single charge available and every single person. That’s one of many reasons I took the case initially to Hinds County DA Jody Owens, a Democrat.”

“My whole mission right now is to do my job well, fully investigate this and work with the FBI,” White said. “We have been working with them every single day. I’ve been on the phone again with them this week.”

White said he thinks Pigott’s subpoenas for USM foundation, Phil Bryant and other communications “makes sense,” and he said he will make sure his investigators and the FBI have any such documents and communications for their investigations.

As for potential involvement of his former boss Bryant — issues raised by text messages obtained by Mississippi Today — White said: “I’ve made very plain from the very beginning, we are going to do our job in this case and it doesn’t matter who you are talking about whether Brett Favre or the janitor down at DHS, we are going to do our jobs on this case and that’s what I’m focused on.”

White said, “I was sick to my stomach every time we would look at something that showed that money was misspent in a different way.”

White said his office uncovered all the aspects of the case that are still the center of attention and said in his speech at the fair that he won’t pull punches on the politically connected or celebrities.

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.