Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley talks about ethics reform in state government during a press conference, Tuesday, May 16, 2023, at the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley unveiled his proposed ethics reforms Tuesday on the south steps of the state Capitol, where the heat and humidity were nearly as blistering as his attack on incumbent Republican Gov. Tate Reeves.

Presley, the Northern District Public Service commissioner, said revelations of $77 million in misspent welfare funds have “exposed a deeper infection of corruption in state government.” He laid out what he called a corrupt system where lobbyists and people close to politicians are rewarded, and average Mississippians have no recourse.

And the Democratic candidate said the welfare scandal occurred during his opponent’s lieutenant governorship, when Reeves presided over the Senate that had oversight responsibilities of state spending.

Presley laid out several ethics changes he’d work to implement on his first day as governor if elected, adding that he would call a special session to propose the reforms. Specific ideas Presley pitched on Tuesday include:

  • Limiting the gifts that politicians could receive from lobbyists.
  • More timely reporting of lobbyists’ expenditures on politicians.
  • Preventing politicians from receiving campaign contributions while the Legislature is in session.
  • Requiring a politician to wait one year after leaving office before becoming a lobbyist.
  • Prohibiting corporations from making campaign contributions and limiting the size of contributions from others.
  • Ensuring the Legislature is covered by open meetings laws.
  • Increasing penalties for violations of lobbying and campaign finance laws.

TRANSCRIPT: Read Brandon Presley’s full May 16, 2023, speech

During his speech, Presley dwelled several times on Reeves’ role in the welfare scandal.

Presley retold the story of his upbringing, saying his late single mother had to have the water cut off to pay the family’s bill. He used the anecdote to underscore how millions in welfare funds that were supposed to help struggling Mississippians were instead squandered by state government officials. He pointed out that the funds were instead used to help former NFL legend Brett Favre build a volleyball court at the University of Southern Mississippi and to reward Paul Lacoste, who Presley called Reeves’ personal trainer who taught Reeves “to do jumping jacks.”

He said the state is now trying to recoup welfare funds that Favre and Lacoste received.

“Millions of taxpayer dollars were stolen from programs to support people just like my momma, and mommas and daddies and grandparents all across Mississippi,” Presley said. “And they went to celebrities, a volleyball court, the governor’s personal trainer and all sorts of pet projects … This type of corruption and this good ole boy network makes me sick at my stomach.”

Reeves has maintained he did not know about the welfare scandal when he was lieutenant governor and played no part in the diversion of welfare funds for the volleyball court, for Lacoste or for other expenditures that state and federal prosecutors have questioned.

READ MORE: Gov. Tate Reeves inspired welfare payment targeted in civil suit, texts show

Presley pointed out that while most other states limit the size of campaign contributions, Mississippi only does so for corporations, which are limited to giving candidates $1,000 per year. When it was pointed out that he had received large donations, including a $250,000 contribution from the political action committee of the Mississippi Hospital Association, Presley said those were current “rules of the road,” but that he believes they should be changed.

While Reeves has out-raised Presley in terms of campaign contributions thanks to multiple large donors, Presley said the $146,399 in campaign contributions of less than $200 each that he received in the first four months of the year is a record amount and an indication of the broad support he has across the state.

During the same time period, Reeves received $25,371 in contributions of less than $200 each.

“Tate Reeves will not tackle corruption. Let me say that again, he will not tackle corruption,” Presley said. “He doesn’t have the guts to do it. It will make too many of his buddies mad and it will upset the system that he has benefited from for the entire time he’s been in state service.”

When asked how hard it would be to convince the Legislature to enact his ethics package, Presley said he believes lawmakers would cooperate. He said the special session would place a spotlight on the issue and make it more difficult for legislators to reject the package.

The Presley campaign documented almost $22,000 in gifts from lobbyists that Reeves has received during his political career. The campaign also pointed out that Reeves committed in the past to lobbying reform but did not make any effort to change lobbying laws as governor.

READ MORE: Reeves far outpaces Presley in total campaign cash, but recent fundraising is competitive

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.

Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.