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

GULFPORT — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley called Tuesday for a new investigator to scrutinize Mississippi’s massive welfare scandal and continued to hammer Republican Gov. Tate Reeves’ lack of support to reform the state’s welfare agency.

Presley, the state’s Northern District Public Service commissioner, told reporters in Gulfport on Tuesday that, if elected to the state’s highest office, he would urge the Mississippi Ethics Commission to appoint the independent inspector who would operate freely of political pressure from state lawmakers and the governor. 

“I promise that I won’t insert myself into this investigation,” Presley said. 

It’s unclear what exact duties the hypothetical investigator would have or what the scope of a potential inquiry would be, but Presley told the media he would want the person to have wide leeway to “do what they think” is best to conduct the review.

The four-term utilities regulator has made the multi-million dollar scandal that has led to multiple people pleading guilty to federal and state charges one of the primary focuses of his bid for the Governor’s Mansion. 

READ MORE: Brandon Presley unveils ethics package, slams governor for welfare scandal

One of the likely reasons the Democratic candidate is pitching the need for a new investigator is to contrast himself with Reeves’ involvement in deciding which attorneys should handle the state’s ongoing civil lawsuit to recoup allegedly misspent welfare funds.

Reeves’ administration last year abruptly fired Brad Pigott, a former federal prosecutor who initially handled the state’s civil lawsuit against dozens of defendants. The governor said he approved Pigott’s termination after the former prosecutor filed a subpoena on the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation.

“When that former U.S. attorney got just a little bit too close to Tate’s buddies and started asking just a little bit too tough of questions and started looking at what really was the deep infection of this corruption, he woke up the next day fired,” Presley said Tuesday.

The other major item that Presley pushed was encouraging representatives from three state agencies to form a public integrity task force to primarily examine state contracts the Department of Human Services awards to its vendors — one of the root causes of the welfare scandal.

While the Democratic candidate is pitching new ethics reform policies, he’s also accusing Reeves, his presumptive Republican opponent in November, of idly letting the scandal play out while he presided over the state Senate as lieutenant governor for eight years. 

“You can write this down and put it in concrete,” Presley said. “Tate Reeves will not fight corruption. Let me say it again. Tate Reeves will not fight corruption. He’s not opened his mouth about corruption in this campaign. He’s not said a word.” 

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.

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

In a recent campaign ad, Reeves re-used footage from his 2019 bid for the Governor’s Mansion of him visiting the now-defunct New Summit School that was owned by Nancy New, a principal figure who has pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the welfare scandal. 

Presley criticized the governor’s decision to use campaign footage of a the private school and called New Summit School the “Chernobyl” of the sprawling welfare scandal, comparing it to the 1980s nuclear plant disaster in Russia. 

The Reeves campaign did not address questions from Mississippi Today about the campaign video and other accusations from Presley, but in response, a Reeves campaign spokesperson labeled Mississippi Today as a “liberal Democrat SuperPAC.”

“No one in Mississippi should endure any lecture on government ethics from Brandon Presley while he is funding his campaign with money from a convicted felon found guilty of attempting to bribe elected officials across Mississippi,” Reeves’ campaign manager Elliott Husbands said in a statement.

Husbands later clarified he was referring to Dickie Scruggs, a disbarred attorney who pleaded guilty to a federal bribery charge and a federal mail fraud charge in 2009. He served a stint in prison, which he completed in 2014.

The prominent former attorney donated $10,000 to Presley’s campaign, according to the candidate’s most recent campaign finance report, and he regularly donates to political candidates in the state.

The Tuesday press conference was the second event the utilities regulator has conducted about tightening ethics rules and reforming lobbying laws in state government. He’s expected to unveil more proposals in the coming weeks.

Editor’s note: Dickie Scruggs has been a donor of Mississippi Today. Donors do not influence Mississippi Today’s editorial decisions, and a list of our donors can be found here.

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Taylor, a native of Grenada, covers state government and statewide elections. He is a graduate of the University of Mississippi and Holmes Community College. Before joining Mississippi Today, Taylor reported on state and local government for the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, where he received an award for his coverage of the federal government’s lawsuit against the state’s mental health system.