We asked readers what questions they had about the Mississippi welfare scandal. Author of The Backchannel series Anna Wolfe answered ten questions. Find the answers below.
Q: How many struggling families did not receive TANF money due to the greed of the people implicated?
A: This is a great question, though it is hard to quantify. I can say that, according to the data dive I published last fall, between the four years of the scandal 2016-2020, the state welfare department received 59,785 applications from families seeking cash assistance and only approved 10,136. This was even more pronounced during 2016, during which the state received 11,384 applications and approved just 163, or 1.4%, according to the data the state submitted to the federal government.
The nearly 50,000 unsuccessful applications do not necessarily represent the number of families who missed out on the assistance, because they likely include duplicate applicants who submitted multiple applications during this time.
Also, because the state has imposed such strict eligibility guidelines for receiving TANF, many of those families would not qualify to receive the assistance regardless. So there’s not a direct correlation between the known misspending and people not receiving the benefit.
This is evident by the fact that the low approval rate did not start during the known scandal. The number of applications the state approved per month dropped significantly from 875 to 48 in a two-month period in 2010. In the five years from 2011 to 2016, the state received 73,532 applications for welfare and approved just 1,674, or 2.3%. Mississippi is not the only state where this is the case, even today. Approval rates across the nation in 2022 ranged from 4.6% in Texas to 100% in Illinois.
This data only describes the cash assistance side of TANF — which is only about 5%-10% of the overall program in Mississippi. The state spends the rest of its TANF block grant on other supposed anti-poverty programs or plugging state budget holes. The misspending from 2016-2020 occurred on the service-provider side of TANF. But the federal government only requires the state to compile data about the families receiving cash aid, not the families receiving other kinds of assistance, such as after school programs, parenting classes or workforce development. This means that if there were meaningful programs taking place before the welfare fraud scheme — before the state consolidated its grants and pushed the funding through the two now disgraced nonprofit directors — we can’t quantify the number of families who missed out on these programs during the scandal.
Q: Why does no one see the true welfare scandal? It is nearly impossible for people to actively receive tanf benefits. In Warren County, there are only 5 social workers at the MDHS office. Each worker has over 800 cases. TANF workers are used to answer phones and take messages for workers. There are no current openings on the Mississipp State Personnel Board for the Warren County MDHS office. Many cases are being closed because the workers cannot work each SNAP or TANF case in the required time period. Why are the actual law makers not being held accountable for the misappropriation of Mississippi tax dollars? Why has the Mississippi State Personnel Board been allowed to mistreat it’s staff?
A: Another great question that relates to the previous answer. I haven’t done reporting on the ground-level work being done in Warren County’s welfare office, but I’d love to hear more of these direct accounts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In a story I published in February, I analyzed more than 60 pieces of legislation that could be considered part of the agenda of protecting life and helping disadvantaged families thrive, including a dozen bills aiming to reform public assistance programs. Most of them died.
State lawmakers have committed no crime that I’m aware of by imposing stringent rules on public assistance programs or cutting state budgets to an unmanageable level. The way these officials are held accountable is by the public at the ballot box.
Q: What do we know about how TANF funds are being used today? Is there any sign that more families in need are receiving assistance now vs. a few years ago?
A: In actuality, Mississippi is providing cash assistance to fewer poor families today than it was during the scandal. The state continues to push out subgrants to nonprofits and other government entities to run the same kinds of programs we have for years — after school programs, parenting initiatives, etc. — but we are leaving tens of millions unspent. You can read more about that here.
Q: Are the appropriate agencies investigating the bigger fish who allowed this to happen? If not, what can you tell us about it?
A: The FBI is still investigating the welfare fraud case. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is prosecuting. The original investigator, the State Auditor’s Office, and the original prosecutor, the Hinds County District Attorney’s Office, both say they are continuing to work on the probe with their federal partners. All defendants who have been charged in the case (with the exception of a lower level MDHS employee who entered pre-trial diversion) have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with the investigation. None of them have been sentenced, which typically means that the authorities are still using them for information and as potential witnesses in their ongoing case. Gov. Phil Bryant oversaw the welfare department and his appointed director, John Davis, during the time the fraud scheme took place. At least three of the criminal defendants, Nancy New, Zach New and Christi Webb, and several civil defendants, including Brett Favre, Paul Lacoste and Austin Smith, have made statements in court or to the press alleging Gov. Bryant was aware of or sanctioned certain spending that is now the subject of the scandal. Bryant has not been charged criminally or civilly. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is currently led by an interim U.S. attorney. President Joe Biden’s nominee for the position, current Department of Justice deputy chief Todd Gee, recently received approval from Mississippi senators and is awaiting confirmation by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.
Q: Which is worse, the rich asking for and receiving federal dollars stolen from the poor, or stealing dollars from the poor and giving it to the rich?
A: I’m not sure, but it seems to me, in both cases, the effect is the same for impoverished Mississippians who were deprived of the assistance.
Q: What about Marcus Dupree?
A: Before the auditor released his audit in 2020, we broke the story about Nancy New’s nonprofit covering the $9,500-month mortgage on a Flora horse ranch, effectively purchasing the property for former running back Marcus Dupree. The Marcus Dupree Foundation, which claims to provide equestrian services to underprivileged youth, technically purchased and owned the property, but Dupree was using it as his private residence. Dupree was also earning a six-figure salary from each of the Families First for Mississippi nonprofits. Auditor Shad White issued the demand against Dupree in October of 2021 and Dupree was named in MDHS’s lawsuit in May of 2022. In his response to the civil lawsuit, he denied all allegations against him.
Q: Why didn’t Shad White’s office arrest Phil Bryant? His office has agents that arrest people all the time. This fact should be consistently broadcasted to ensure White is never elected to office again.
A: The State Auditor’s Office makes an arrest in the course of an investigation when a prosecutor, often a local district attorney, has secured an indictment against an individual. In the case of the welfare scandal, Auditor Shad White’s office turned over information to the Hinds County District Attorney’s Office that suggested Nancy New, John Davis and others had committed a crime, and when the Hinds County grand jury handed down an indictment, White’s office made the arrests. We are unaware of an indictment against former Gov. Phil Bryant.
Q: Regarding the payment made to and later refunded by Favre; did Favre make any appearances or cut any commercials? Was there evidence that he ever declined an invitation to speak or cut commercials?
A: Favre cut a radio ad for Families First for Mississippi which ran in the fall of 2018, several months after he received two payments under the contract totaling $1.1 million. The disagreement between Favre and State Auditor Shad White, who issued the 2021 demand for Favre to repay the funds, lies with the terms of that contract, which had been kept from the public for over two years until Mississippi Today published it last fall. The Scope of Work of the contract said that Favre would speak at three speaking engagements, cut a radio spot and provide one keynote speech. The auditor determined that Favre did not attend any events or deliver a keynote, and Favre has never said that he did. Favre argues that he was never scheduled for those activities, but the auditor doesn’t allege that Favre was, just that he didn’t perform the work outlined in the agreement. You can read more about that here. As the civil case has progressed, we’ve learned that the issue with the $1.1 million payment may not be whether he conducted the work or not, but the purpose for which he received the money in the first place. Text messages recently released clearly illustrate that the nonprofit funneled the money through Favre as a way to push more funding to the construction of the volleyball stadium at University of Southern Mississippi, but Favre didn’t use the money for the project, according to his spokesperson.
Q: Here we go again….
“While $1,100,000 was paid based on a contract for public appearances, and Favre did record a radio advertisement, the payment was intended, as requested by Bryant, to help Favre raise funds for construction of the Volleyball Facility,” reads New’s October filing in the civil case.
If you were being non-biased, you would have gone back and read the text messages. They have been produced. They clearly show that Favre and Nancy talked about this and…. even assuming Nancy is not lying… at best the argument she makes is that the “Wow, I just got off the phone with Governor” text is her telling Bryant about the idea, not Bryant requesting it. That quote from the pleading literally makes no sense. Does that make sense to you? I would have at least pointed out the inconsistencies in New’s arguments here which lend doubt to the credibility of this, especially given Bryant and Favre both say that is not true and all of the other texts with Nancy and Governor Bryant about this until the proposal are about having a fundraiser at the mansion. Using our brains and not our political motives… let’s just tryyyyyy to make the story sound like you are after the truth. I’m rooting for you here.
A: The paragraph you cited is a direct quote from a court filing from Nancy New. It alleges that the payment New made to Favre was both 1) intended to help pay for construction of the volleyball stadium and 2) directed by former Gov. Phil Bryant. This was relevant to include in my latest story because Favre’s team is now saying that Favre did not put any of the $1.1 million he received from New towards the volleyball stadium. He instead continued to lobby others, including other public entities, for the funds.
I think we understand there is a lot more we don’t yet know, but we also find it valuable and newsworthy to report on these allegations, especially since Bryant has objected to turning over all of his messages with the relevant figures — particularly with Brett Favre and John Davis — to the public. It’s also important to note that the text messages aren’t going to be the only source of evidence in the ongoing case. In other words, just because someone didn’t put something in writing doesn’t mean it didn’t happen (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence). These kinds of statements from key witnesses give some insight into the facts they’d be willing to testify to during a potential trial. That’s why they are, on their own, critical pieces of evidence in the case. It’s our job to make that information available to the public.
Q: When all of the truth finally comes out, will Ms. Wolfe be willing to publish an apology and correct The Backchannel articles if it turns out that she was actually wrong? I would think to save face MS Today will have to at least acknowledge the truth. I realize it’s inconsistent with the Let’s Go Brandon (Presley) effort but assuming you are actually still trying to pretend you’re a legitimate news source, I would think it would be necessary. Now that all comments have been turned off to the public, I can’t wait to see which ones Ms. Wolfe selects to answer. In the words of Willy Wonka (since MS Today appreciates the world of pure imagination), “The suspense is terrible. I hope it lasts!”
A: We do not refrain from publishing information we know to be true — including attributed allegations — for years on end until every single person involved decides to speak. If that were the standard to publish a story, we would not have published a single story on the welfare scandal in three years. We would be happy to issue a correction for any credible challenges to the accuracy of the reporting — and please send them our way. In the meantime, we will continue publishing new information as it becomes available, as we have done for the past three years.