Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley speaks about Gov. Tate Reeves' involvement in the state's welfare scandal during a press conference in front of the Governor's Mansion in Jackson on Monday, Aug. 28, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Brandon Presley, the state’s Democratic nominee for governor, stood in front of the gates of the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion last week to lob two major accusations at his Republican opponent, Gov. Tate Reeves, over his connections to the state’s welfare scandal. 

The first allegation was Reeves has accepted nearly $1.7 million in donations from people who have personally benefited from the state’s welfare scandal that Mississippi officials have labeled the “largest public embezzlement scheme in state history.”

The second major claim was that University of Southern Mississippi-affiliated donors began to quickly donate to Reeves after he approved the firing of Brad Pigott, the state’s attorney who initially handled a civil lawsuit to recoup misspent welfare dollars. 

READ MOREState fires attorney probing former Gov. Phil Bryant in welfare scandal lawsuit

“Today, our campaign is revealing that his rich friends who have benefitted from the largest public corruption scandal in state history and Tate’s efforts to stifle that investigation gave his campaign nearly $1.7 million in return,” Presley said. 

The Democratic nominee claimed most of the contributors who had profited from the scandal were affiliated with the USM Athletic Foundation, which landed $5 million in federal welfare funds to help construct a volleyball stadium. This project and its welfare funding source, reporting has shown, was shepherded by NFL legend and USM alumnus Brett Favre.

To support his corruption claim, Presley’s campaign team distributed a spreadsheet to reporters that listed 54 individuals and companies who were purportedly affiliated with USM and who have donated to Reeves. But a review of those groups and people by Mississippi Today shows that at least 20 of them have no apparent ties to the scandal and have not served on any leadership panel at USM’s athletic foundation.

Presley’s math on the donations is accurate, but his claim that Reeves accepted $1.7 million from people who directly “benefitted from the scandal” is misleading and lacks evidence.

For example, the spreadsheet lists Joe Frank Sanderson Jr., CEO of Laurel-based poultry producer Sanderson Farms, as someone who has benefitted from the welfare scandal and who has donated over $300,000 to Reeves since he first ran for public office in 2003. 

Sanderson is a major USM donor and a top campaign donor to Reeves, but there’s no public evidence to show that he has profited from the scandal that involves at least $77 million of questionable spending, most of which was funneled through the Mississippi Department of Human Services during former Gov. Phil Bryant’s administration.

The campaign’s other serious charge is that donations from USM-affiliated donors spiked by $244,000 after the governor signed off on cutting Pigott loose as the lead attorney in the civil litigation. 

On Presley’s distributed spreadsheet, Mississippi Today tabulated 32 total donations that those contributors made after June 22, 2022, the date Pigott was fired. 

But only about half of those donations occurred between the day after Pigott was fired to the end of the calendar year — a five-month window that would most clearly show if a correlation between Reeves’ campaign donations and Pigott’s termination existed.

The rest of those donations occurred in 2023, when Reeves announced he was running for reelection, arguably the time when any candidate’s donations would spike.  

READ MORE: What exactly is Gov. Tate Reeves’ involvement in the welfare scandal?

While the campaign’s list of donors with known ties to the scandal is inflated, Presley’s decision to highlight the USM Athletic Foundation appears timely and warranted. The state’s civil lawsuit to recoup misspent TANF funds is ongoing, and just last week, DHS attorneys subpoenaed almost 30 current and former members of the athletic foundation, the USM athletic department and the alumni association.

The latest subpoenas, which Front Office Sports first reported, include a handful of names or businesses that also appear in the Presley campaign’s distributed spreadsheet of donors who have allegedly benefited from the scandal.

Without a doubt, there are any number of welfare scandal-related questions Presley could publicly ask of Reeves. Just last week, text messages released by the governor’s campaign to preempt Mississippi Today reporting show that his brother, Todd Reeves, coordinated a damage control strategy with State Auditor Shad White over part of Favre’s early role in the scandal.

Additionally, why does the governor continue to hold on to political donations from Nancy and Zach New, two people who have pleaded guilty to federal crimes connected to the welfare scandal? And what, exactly, was the extent of Reeves’ involvement in his personal trainer receiving more than $1 million in welfare funds?

READ MOREGov. Tate Reeves inspired welfare payment targeted in civil suit, texts show

To be fair, Presley has raised many of these questions during the campaign cycle. But why would he put forward a half-baked accusation on USM donors, especially when many of the college’s alumni are part of a crucial voting bloc he needs to win in November? 

Instead, Presley chose to stand in front of the Governor’s Mansion and potentially undermine his long-standing strategy of pairing the governor with the scandal. To outright claim, without evidence, that many USM-affiliated donors are pulling the levers of Reeves’ campaign stretches the truth about a widespread scandal that, no doubt, deserves more facts and answers.

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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.