Gov. Tate Reeves’ reelection campaign is using 2019 video from the now-shuttered New Summit School that was owned by Nancy New, one of the central figures in Mississippi’s massive welfare scandal.
New and her son Zach New, both past political donors to Reeves, have pleaded guilty to fraud charges after bilking $4 million in public education funds related to their work at New Summit School. They have also pleaded guilty to numerous other charges related to the misspending of $77 million in welfare funds that were intended to help the state’s poorest residents.
In 2019, then-Lt. Gov. Reeves, who was campaigning for a first term as governor, shot an ad at the private New Summit School highlighting his proposed pay raise for public school teachers. The 2019 video featured private school teachers and students, Mississippi Today reported at the time. The school has since closed after the News faced their litany of legal problems. They await sentencing and are cooperating with federal prosecutors.
But at least two scenes from that 2019 campaign commercial are now part of Reeves’ new 2023 campaign kickoff video released last week, according to a Mississippi Today review of both ads. In the 2023 ad, Reeves can be seen wearing the same clothes and standing with several of the same people in some of the same New Summit School rooms as the 2019 ad.
The welfare scandal has been a top focus of Reeves’ Democratic challenger Brandon Presley, who has hammered the governor for his connections to those involved in the welfare scandal.
Michael Beyer, Presley’s communications director, said of the new video: “Tate Reeves launched his campaign with a paid advertisement reminding Mississippians of his connection to the largest public corruption scandal in state history, and no matter what he says or does, he won’t be able to escape Mississippians’ questions about his role in funneling millions of dollars meant for working families to pet projects for his celebrity friends and personal trainer and then firing the veteran prosecutor once the investigation got too close to him and his buddies.”
Beyer was referring to Reeves’ abrupt firing of Brad Pigott, an attorney who was hired by Reeves’ welfare agency director to try to recoup millions in misspent welfare funds. Reeves at the time said Pigott, a former U.S. attorney appointed by Democratic President Bill Clinton, was fired because he was “too political.” Pigott said he was fired because he was investigating people and entities close with Reeves, such as former Gov. Phil Bryant and the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation.
Additionally, well-known Mississippi fitness trainer Paul Lacoste, who said he was a close friend of Reeves’ when he endorsed him in 2019, is being sued by the state to recoup $1.3 million in welfare funds he received. Mississippi Today reported in its “The Backchannel” investigation that Lacoste met in 2019 with Reeves and John Davis, the former director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services who has since pleaded guilty to charges related to the scandal.
Two days after that 2019 meeting, Davis asked his deputy to find a way to push a large sum of money to New’s nonprofit without triggering a red flag in an audit, so that the nonprofit could fund Lacoste’s boot camp. Davis called the project in a text message “the Lt. Gov’s fitness issue.”
Reeves has adamantly denied any wrongdoing in the scandal. The Reeves campaign did not respond to questions from Mississippi Today about his continued use of video from New Summit.
In a 2019 statement, then-Reeves spokesman Parker Briden said the campaign films ads at public and private schools because Reeves “isn’t trying to pit them against each other.”
“We were proud to film this one at New Summit, a school that has helped many special needs children gain a quality education; Tate has a strong sense of mission to help those kids. They were very gracious with their time and space after a school day. The teachers featured in our ad were public school teachers.”
But at the time, Mississippi Today verified that at least some of the teachers in the ad were not public school teachers and were employed in private schools. It could not be verified at the time whether any of the women in the commercial were current public school teachers.
During his tenure as lieutenant governor and governor, Reeves has been an outspoken advocate of providing public funds to private schools. A lawsuit is currently pending before the Mississippi Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of grants supported by Reeves for private schools.
During the final days of the 2019 legislative session, the legislative leadership, led by then Lt. Gov. Reeves, quietly inserted language into a bill adding $2 million to a program providing vouchers to private schools for special needs students. Much of that money at the time went to New Summit. The money was added even though House Education Committee Chairman Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, had promised House members the program would not be expanded because of oversight concerns highlighted in a legislative watchdog report. Bennett told House members he did not know the language adding the extra money was in the bill.
The News, after the federal indictment related to New Summit School, pleaded guilty and agreed to work with federal prosecutors who continue to probe welfare misspending. Nancy New pleaded guilty to one count of using proceeds of wire fraud, or money laundering, which comes with a possible prison sentence of up to ten years. Zach New pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, which carries a sentence of up to five years.
Among the misspending outlined in the indictment, federal prosecutors alleged that Nancy New used at least $76,889 in funds that were supposed to go to Mississippi public schools to purchase her house in northeast Jackson.