Ex-welfare chief asks judge to muzzle new director and Mississippi state auditor

Published 6:31 am Tuesday, December 14, 2021

By Anna Wolfe

Mississippi Today 

At a status conference Friday morning, attorneys for former Mississippi Department of Human Services Director John Davis asked the judge to reinforce an existing gag order in his case.

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Hinds County prosecutors have accused Davis of fraud and conspiring with nonprofit founder Nancy New and her son Zach New to embezzle from a federal public assistance program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, commonly referred to as “welfare.”

Davis has pleaded not guilty, but nearly two years after his initial arrest, his trial date remains elusive. The FBI has also been investigating the welfare scandal in the meantime and has yet to make public charges.

Chuck Mullins of Jackson law firm Coxwell & Associates told Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Adrienne Wooten Friday that current welfare agency director Bob Anderson and State Auditor Shad White have been making statements to the media that threaten his client’s ability to have a fair trial. During the hearing, Wooten was receptive to expanding the suppression order to expressly include the two officials. The order prohibits the parties from discussing the case with the media.

According to Mississippi Today’s past interviews with State Auditor Shad White and office spokesperson Logan Reeves, the auditor’s office has already been operating under the assumption it is included in the original Feb. 4 gag order. White has attempted to follow the order by refraining from discussing specific criminal charges, including with Mississippi Today, but he continues to discuss the audit findings that are separate from the criminal case, such as the welfare money he says was improperly paid to retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre. Favre has not faced criminal or civil charges, though the welfare agency has contracted with former U.S. Attorney Brad Pigott to file civil litigation against many of the improper welfare recipients. He has not filed the case yet.

Mississippi Department of Human Services spokesperson Mark Jones said Anderson was aware of the recent motion.

Wooten filed the original suppression order in Davis’ case because of a Feb. 3 Mississippi Today article that described how she rejected a plea deal — a rare occurrence — in the related case of nonprofit accountant Ann McGrew.

With the gag order in place, the public is less likely to learn more about how officials frittered away tens of millions of welfare dollars, and who else might be responsible for the scheme, until trial.

Both prosecuting and defense attorneys keep requesting the trial be pushed back because the discovery — documents investigators have compiled to make their case — is so massive. The district attorney’s office is still turning over new records to the defense counsel, as recently as early December.

While officials have accused Davis of conspiring with New to steal over $4 million in federal welfare dollars, the charges in his indictment are more narrowly focused on how his agency paid Brett DiBiase, an ex-wrestler who has battled drug addiction, $48,000 under a contract for opioid addiction education he did not fulfill. The indictment also alleges Davis conspired with New to use taxpayer dollars to pay for DiBiase’s four-month long stay in a luxury Malibu rehab facility. DiBiase pleaded guilty in December of 2020 and has agreed to be a state’s witness.

Based on its recent motion to extend the court’s gag order, Davis’ counsel appears poised to defend against his charges by showing how agency policy sanctioned many of his actions and how he received approval by other employees, including legal staff, in his office.

“Both Mr. Anderson and Mr. White have repeatedly made comments about Mr. Davis, inferring matters about his guilt, but failing to report instances when the actions taken by Mr. Davis were approved by MDHS policies,” reads the motion filed Dec. 13. “In some instances, Mr. White and Mr. Davis have made comments about Mr. Davis’s actions when those actions were approved by other people at MDHS.”

As Mississippi Today first reported in May, 14 different agency employees signed off on the “grant closeout” documents that New’s nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center submitted to the welfare agency to describe what it did with its millions of grant funding each year.

In reality, auditors have been unable to parse out what happened to $40 million her nonprofit spent.

On Dec. 7, two days before the latest status hearing, Mississippi Today published a story prompted by an Oct. 8 statement from Anderson. In a Facebook interview, Anderson explained the agency’s primary process for holding accountable the private organizations who receive subgrants from the state — where most of the alleged misspending in the welfare scandal occurred.

The department conducts routine audits and if it finds any subgrantee purchases were improper, it sends a letter, asking the nonprofits to justify the spending or return the funds. Anderson said that under the Davis administration, the agency simply failed to send these letters out.

Mississippi Today requested all the findings letters Anderson’s department has issued in the most recent year and found that it demanded subgrantees return $1 million. The agency attempted to charge Mississippi Today nearly $400 for the letters sent under the previous four years, under Davis. The news organization agreed to pay for one year’s worth of letters and is waiting for the request to be filled.

This story is reprinted with permission from Mississippi Today.