Mississippi is one step closer to having a permanent U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, who is expected to oversee the prosecution of what’s been called the largest public fraud case in state history.
Both Sens. Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith have indicated their approval of President Joe Biden’s nominee for the position, Todd Gee, deputy chief of the Public Integrity Section of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Waiting for Gee in Mississippi are five defendants in the welfare scandal who have pleaded guilty to federal charges and have agreed to help the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office with their ongoing probe. These include nonprofit founder Nancy New and her son Zach New, former welfare director John Davis, former nonprofit director Christi Webb and retired professional wrestler Brett DiBiase.
The scandal involves the theft or misspending of $77 million in federal welfare funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program, including payments to the pet projects of former NFL quarterback Brett Favre.
Officials have hinted that the investigation is moving higher up the chain and New has already alleged in civil court that former Gov. Phil Bryant directed her to make one of the largest payments in question — $1.1 million to Favre for a radio ad promoting the state’s anti-poverty initiative called Families First for Mississippi. Bryant, whose office oversaw the welfare department during the scandal, has not faced civil or criminal charges.
Meanwhile, Hyde-Smith announced Tuesday she is blocking the confirmation of Scott Colom, Lowndes County District Attorney, for U.S. District Court Judge in Northern Mississippi. Wicker had already given his approval for Colom.
“I visited with the District Attorney recently, and I recognize that he is smart and well liked in his district,” Hyde-Smith said in a statement Tuesday. “However, there are a number of concerns I have regarding his record. As someone with a strong interest in protecting the rights of girls and women, I am concerned about Scott Colom’s opposition to legislation to protect female athletes.”
Hyde-Smith seems to be referring to a letter Colom signed condemning the criminalization of gender-affirming care, rejecting the prosecution of the families of transgender individuals seeking treatment to help them transition. He and dozens of other prosecuting attorneys made the statement in the aftermath of an onslaught of legislation across the country attempting to block trans youth from receiving the care.
While it did condemn anti-trans legislation generally, the prosecutors’ statement did not discuss “legislation to protect female athletes,” which refers to attempts to prohibit trans women from competing in women’s sports.
Hyde-Smith’s statement also criticized Colom for campaign donations he’s received from George Soros, a New York billionaire who has long contributed to criminal justice reform causes, such as legalization of marijuana and progressive sentencing. Hyde-Smith’s statement came on the same day Trump appeared in court on a 34-count indictment for falsifying business records in a scheme during his 2016 presidential campaign to conceal that he’d had an affair with an adult film star.
Following the charges, Trump and his supporters attributed the probe to Soros, who supported the Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg leading the case.
“The significant support his (Colom’s) campaign received from George Soros also weighs heavily against his nomination in my view,” Hyde-Smith said in her statement Tuesday. “I simply cannot support his nomination to serve on the federal bench in Mississippi for a lifetime.”
In Colom’s 2015 race for district attorney, Soros funneled money into a Political Action Committee called Mississippi Safety & Justice, which ran ads for Colom. The PAC contributed $716,000 to the race, New York Magazine reported, almost five times what Colom himself raised. But Colom said at the time that he didn’t know and never communicated with Soros, Clarion Ledger reported. He successfully ran again in 2019 without support from the PAC, which filed its termination in 2016 after the race.
Mississippi is also awaiting confirmation of two U.S. Marshals.
Wicker and Hyde-Smith were able to hold up both nominations for several months, or indefinitely, because of a longstanding tradition in the U.S. Senate called “blue slips” – the piece of paper a senator returns to the judiciary committee to indicate they’ll approve the candidate when it comes time for a vote.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, could choose to suspend the blue slip process — as the Republican-controlled Senate did when former President Donald Trump made his judicial appointments to the circuit courts of appeals — and bring Colom and others to the committee for a vote. Because of the make-up of the committee, the nominations could pass with only Democratic votes.