Former Gov. Phil Bryant opted Thursday to release hundreds of pages of text messages with figures in the Mississippi welfare scandal after initially fighting a subpoena against him.
But several key messages between the state’s chief executive and his appointed welfare director are missing from the batch, according to a separate trove of leaked text messages obtained and possessed by Mississippi Today.
In a video statement he published prior to releasing the texts and emails Thursday, Bryant said he has been “as open and honest as I can be” about the massive fraud scheme that took place under his watch, resulting in the loss of $77 million in federal welfare funds from 2016 to 2019.
While thousands of text messages have come out in the course of Mississippi Department of Human Services’ civil litigation, the public has yet to see any messages sent during the pertinent months of the scandal between Bryant and his subordinate who ran the agency John Davis.
Bryant said on Thursday he does not possess any text messages with Davis between 2016, when Davis became director, and June of 2019, when Bryant forced Davis to retire — including the early 2019 messages Mississippi Today already retrieved and published last year in its investigative series “The Backchannel.”
Texts that Mississippi Today possesses that Bryant didn’t produce on Thursday include:
- An exchange in which Bryant asked Davis to fund a specific vendor, to which Davis responded, “Yes sir we can definitely help. You can go ahead and tell them I will be reaching out to fund them. I will do today.”
- A text Bryant sent asking Davis for help with his troubled nephew, whom top welfare officials had apparently taken under their wing.
- A text Davis sent Bryant explaining that he had “FOUND A WAY TO FUND” a vendor Bryant supported after initially learning it would violate federal welfare grant regulations. Bryant responded: “Your (sic) the best..”
- A text in which Bryant asked Davis about a Mississippi Today report on federal welfare expenditures. Davis responds that the state is spending money in “areas that encourage getting a keeping a job.” Bryant responded: “Keep up the good work.”
In response to Mississippi Today questions, a spokesperson for Bryant said on Thursday the former governor did not delete any messages from his phone.
Bryant, who faces no criminal or civil charges, has been at the center of public scrutiny for his alleged role in diverting tens of millions of federal funds intended to help the state’s poorest residents away from the needy. Following “The Backchannel” reporting in 2022, several Mississippians who have pleaded guilty to criminal or civil charges have alleged in court that Bryant directed or influenced their misspending or fraud.
Davis, who has remained the most silent in the case, has since pleaded guilty to 20 charges — two federal and 18 state — of conspiracy, theft or fraud and is aiding federal prosecutors in an ongoing investigation while awaiting sentencing.
After an agency employee brought forward a small tip of fraud against Davis in June 2019, Bryant turned over the information to State Auditor Shad White, whom Bryant initially appointed to his position, and forced Davis to retire. At this time, investigators from the auditor’s office retrieved Davis’ phone, which held messages with Bryant dating back only to March of 2019.
“John has dedicated his life to serving others,” Bryant wrote in a glowing statement about Davis’ retirement, which did not address the fraud investigation.
Mississippi Today exclusively obtained 14 pages of text messages between Bryant and Davis sent in the four months leading up to Davis’ ousting. In the texts, Bryant asked Davis to fund specific subgrantees and praised him for his efforts to reduce the number of poor families receiving aid under under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF.
But when Bryant gathered the communication in response to a subpoena, he found that he did not have any of these messages in his possession, his spokesperson said, therefore he did not produce them Thursday.
“Everybody in modern America knows you can delete a text,” said Jim Waide, the attorney for Davis’ nephew Austin Smith, a defendant in the civil suit.
Waide is one of the attorneys who filed a subpoena on Bryant. One of the items he requested was any communication in which Bryant sought help from Davis for his nephew, which Mississippi Today first uncovered in “The Backchannel.”
These texts, in which Bryant thanked Davis “for all your (sic) have done,” do not appear in the documents Bryant produced Thursday.
“And we know they exist because (Mississippi Today) published them, several of them, between him and John Davis. So we know they exist, or somewhere at one time they existed,” Waide said.
Before national news covered the welfare scandal, Mississippi Today exposed it first.
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Bryant’s public relations representative Denton Gibbes addressed the missing texts in a statement released to the news media Thursday.
“To the extent any additional messages exist, Gov. Bryant does not have them,” Gibbes said. “Gov. Bryant is aware of a message between he and John Davis relating to his nephew, Noah McRae, that he does not currently possess. Gov. Bryant did not delete this or any other messages. He is unclear why this message is not on his mobile phone. Gov. Bryant has searched older devices in an effort to recover this and any other additional messages. Gov. Bryant even requested Apple’s assistance in recovering additional messages. These efforts were unsuccessful.”
The statement said Bryant chose to produce all the text messages with Davis in his possession, even though they were not responsive to the narrow subpoenas, “in the spirt (sic) of transparency.”
The newly released texts, which cover the time period July to September of 2019, show that Bryant and Davis communicated after the welfare director left office. “We are still here if you need us,” Bryant texted the embattled former director, accompanied by a prayer hands emoji, in mid-July of 2019 as the investigation into Davis’ conduct got underway.
After this, Bryant continued to contact Davis about where to find a vendor’s TANF funding. “Do you know where the $250k funding for JMG maybe at? Think this was some TANF dollars,” he wrote in August of 2019.
“Yes sir it was ready to be approved. It falls within the guidelines of TANF funding. It should not be a problem,” Davis responded.
Davis also expressed concern to the governor about being able to secure a new job, considering the ongoing auditor’s investigation. Bryant told Davis, “I have told the Auditor I would stay out of this and trust him to do his best.”
Within the welfare scandal, much of the focus has been on three projects that received more than $8 million in federal funding because of the alleged involvement of both Bryant and former NFL legend Brett Favre. These include a volleyball stadium at University of Southern Mississippi, a pharmaceutical startup company called Prevacus and a $1.1 million promotional contract with Favre himself.
Mississippi Today published its 2022 investigation about Bryant’s role in the scandal after receiving and reviewing hundreds of pages of text messages obtained by investigators in the case, including those between Bryant, Favre, and Prevacus founder Jake Vanlandingham.
The texts showed that after Bryant met with former NFL legend Brett Favre about supporting his startup pharmaceutical venture in late 2018, the then-governor promised to “open a hole” for Favre and less than a week later, welfare officials including Davis struck a deal at the athlete’s home to funnel $1.7 million of federal grant funds into the project.
When the public funds started flowing to the drug company, Favre texted Bryant, “We couldn’t be more happy about the funding from the State of MS,” though Bryant denies knowing that the company received any public funds. Two days after leaving office, Bryant then agreed by text to accept “a company package for all your help,” Vanlandingham wrote, but arrests occurred before they were able to meet.
“The fact is I did nothing wrong,” Bryant said in his statement Thursday morning. “I wasn’t aware of the wrongdoings of others. When I received evidence that suggested people appeared to be misappropriating funds, I immediately reported that to the agency whose job it is to investigate these matters. It’s been a long and difficult year watching as decades of my public service is dragged through the mud and hoping it doesn’t affect those closest to me.”
Waide and Gerry Bufkin, the attorney for nonprofit founder Nancy New, initially filed subpoenas against Bryant last year in the massive civil case that Mississippi Department of Human Services is bringing against 47 individuals or companies in an attempt to claw back the misspent funds.
Bryant has been fighting the subpoenas, arguing that his text messages are protected under executive privilege. Mississippi Today, the Daily Journal and Mississippi Free Press filed a motion in early April opposing Bryant’s attempts to block public access to the documents. Bryant chose to release the messages before the court had a chance to rule on the matter.
“After much thought and discussion with counsel, I’ve made the decision to forgo any arguments about executive privilege of my text messages in this matter and simply release them all,” Bryant said in the video statement on Thursday. “Frankly, I’m tired of paying legal fees to respond to lawsuits that I’m not a party to in order to protect my privacy and an executive privilege that should exist for future governors.”
The judge in the civil suit, Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Faye Peterson, would have had the final say on whether the texts were released. She recently filed her first major order in the civil suit, which has been in progress for the last year, in which she denied Favre’s motion to dismiss charges against him.
In response to Bryant’s decision to release the texts, current Mississippi Department of Human Services Director Bob Anderson told Mississippi Today in a statement that “the agency has not been provided any of these text messages since we are involved in pending litigation.”
“MDHS will be very interested to review and have counsel review these messages,” he added. “MDHS is interested in reviewing communications relating to all parties, especially those currently named in the civil complaint.
Waide said he didn’t buy Bryant’s argument that he was releasing the texts to avoid more legal fees.
“The attorneys’ fees have already been incurred when they wrote the brief,” Waide said. “He wouldn’t be incurring any additional attorneys’ fees now. And second, I believe it’s inevitable the judge was going to order him to release them, and that he did it as a smart public relations move.”
Bryant released the texts publicly on a new website called bryanttexts.com. Some of the photocopies are so faded, the dates of the messages are barely legible.
“We all know what’s going to happen next,” Bryant said in the video also uploaded to the website. “My text messages will be manipulated through a coordinated effort from a billionaire-driven media outlet and Democratic political consultants. These messages will be again mischaracterized into endless fodder for those who want to try to denigrate the success of my terms as governor and castigate Republican candidates in an election year.”