Bob Anderson, right, the state Department of Human Services director, is asking lawmakers to support an increase in monthly TANF checks. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Mississippi is postponing its interrogation of defendants in the welfare department’s civil suit — an unsurprising development following the abrupt removal of the private attorney on the case and Gov. Tate Reeves’ recent lukewarm statements on the litigation.

The suit, filed in May, currently attempts to recoup $24 million in misspent federal grant funds from 38 people or companies who benefitted from the funds, including NFL legend Brett Favre, three retired WWE wrestlers, and two other former football players. The attorney who brought the complaint, Brad Pigott, had recently scheduled depositions for 13 people between August and November.

The depositions were expected to be the first public questioning of those responsible for diverting at least $77 million in federal welfare funds away from the needy, according to independent audits, since the scandal broke more than two years ago.

Four out of six people arrested on criminal charges in 2020 related to the scheme have pleaded guilty, meaning they will have no trial, while the remaining two are likely still seeking plea agreements.

A federal investigation is ongoing, but the civil suit, which comes with more leeway to gather information, has the potential to produce many more answers for the public than the criminal cases.

“As you are likely aware, the MDHS is in the process of bringing in new outside counsel to function as lead counsel for the Plaintiff. Brad Pigott is no longer representing MDHS … In light of this development, MDHS requested that I postpone the previously noticed deposition schedule,” Assistant Attorney General Stephen Schelver wrote to the attorneys of defendants in the case Tuesday. “All current deposition settings by MDHS are postponed, effective immediately.”

MDHS did not release publicly that it was seeking new outside counsel until after it told Pigott he would no longer be working on the case, indicating that the agency did not make the decision to transition to other counsel in advance.

“While MDHS had been considering entering into another contract for Pigott to continue to represent MDHS, Pigott was notified on Friday that MDHS would simply allow his current contract to expire and would not be entering into another contract,” MDHS said in a July 23 statement after the news of Pigott’s removal broke.

Speaking with reporters Thursday, Reeves inserted himself into the MDHS civil case, explaining how the state selected who it would include as defendants. MDHS and Pigott had originally wanted to sue University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation, which received $5 million in TANF money to build a volleyball stadium on campus on behalf of Favre. But the governor’s office directed Pigott to remove USM before filing the complaint.

When Pigott subpoenaed the athletic foundation for its communication with figures in the case, as well as with former Gov. Phil Bryant and his wife Deborah Bryant, that’s when the agency canned him.

MDHS Director Bob Anderson’s statement said the decision to change attorneys “does not indicate any change in the commitment of MDHS to recover these TANF funds for taxpayers.”

In a new statement Wednesday, MDHS said it is “actively working” to hire another attorney or law firm, which must be approved by the Attorney General’s Office.

“Once in place, MDHS expects to move forward in an expeditious manner with the civil case, including the resetting of depositions on a schedule to be determined once the agency has selected and retained new counsel,” the statement reads.

The agency did not provide a timeline for retaining new counsel other than, “we hope to get a new attorney in place soon.”

On July 25, Anderson sent an email to his staff with the agency’s original media statement.

“I wanted you to have the benefit of the agency’s position as stated in our press release. I am sharing this with you in the spirit of my ongoing efforts a full transparency as your executive director,” he said in the email, obtained by Mississippi Today.

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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.