Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley held a press conference to discuss ethics and corruption, Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023, in downtown Jackson near the City Centre building. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Brandon Presley, the Democratic nominee for governor, on Thursday called on his political rival, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, to remove himself from any major decisions involving his administration’s ongoing effort to recoup misspent welfare dollars. 

Speaking in front of the Mississippi Department of Human Service’s downtown Jackson building, Presley cited recently released text messages between the governor’s brother, Todd Reeves, and State Auditor Shad White discussing former NFL athlete Brett Favre’s early role in the welfare scandal as a reason why the governor has a conflict of interest with directing the lawsuit.

Presley said that Reeves, who as governor is leading the ongoing DHS lawsuit that continues to probe the misspending, should recuse himself from that effort.

“It seems to me to make sense that when your brother is an undercover lobbyist and an undercover public relations agent, that it makes sense to get yourself out of that investigation to remove any suspicion of this being any more of a family affair than it already is,” Presley said. 

Presley’s Thursday remarks come a week after Gov. Reeves’ campaign released text messages between Todd Reeves and White showing that the governor’s brother coordinated with the auditor on damage control for Favre after an audit revealed in 2020 that the former NFL star received more than $1 million in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, funds. 

READ MOREGov. Tate Reeves’ brother used backchannel to state auditor to help clean up Brett Favre welfare mess

A nonprofit paid Favre $1.1 million in welfare funds for a series of speaking engagements that state officials say the former athlete never actually completed. Favre eventually repaid the money, though auditors say he did not return around $228,000 in interest. 

The texts last week show how, on Favre’s behalf, Todd Reeves facilitated the athlete’s repayment of some of the funds and asked White to make a public statement that “the investigation (shows to this point) Brett has done nothing wrong.” 

White praised Favre in the statement he released the same day: “I want to applaud Mr. Favre for his good faith effort to make this right and make the taxpayers and TANF families whole. To date, we have seen no records indicating Mr. Favre knew that TANF was the program that served as the source of the money he was paid.”

A few weeks later, Todd Reeves texted White, “Just wanted to tell you I appreciate you talking and helping the last couple of weeks.”

Days after the Reeves campaign publicly released the text messages, Presley said he believes Todd Reeves’ involvement could pollute the integrity of the state’s efforts to recoup misspent welfare dollars because the governor is the statutory head of MDHS, the agency leading the lawsuit.

READ MOREWhat exactly is Gov. Tate Reeves’ involvement in the welfare scandal?

The governor’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment, but Todd Reeves said in a previous statement that he was simply coordinating efforts to help Favre repay the welfare funds and did not know anything about the “TANF mess.” 

But Presley said on Thursday that he believes the text messages between Todd Reeves and the state auditor could be the tip of the iceberg on text communications that exist between the Reeves family and other people connected to the scandal. 

The Democratic nominee also pushed for an independent investigator, or the attorney general’s office, to comb through Gov. Reeves’ communications with defendants in the the state’s civil litigation or people who have pleaded guilty to crimes connected to the scandal. 

“Why was Todd Reeves setting up conversations about how Tate should spend taxpayer dollars” Presley asked. “Why was Todd Reeves meddling in the state auditor’s investigation, and what influence does Todd Reeves try to exert over other investigations?”

Presley has made the welfare scandal one of the main tenets of his gubernatorial campaign. He will compete against Reeves in the general election on November 7. 

READ MORE: Welfare scandal is big deal to Mississippi voters. But will it play in governor’s race?

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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.