State fires attorney probing former Gov. Phil Bryant in welfare scandal lawsuit
Published 9:00 pm Friday, July 22, 2022
By Anna Wolfe
The state welfare department has fired Brad Pigott, the former U.S. attorney it contracted to claw back millions in misspent federal funds from dozens of people in Mississippi’s sprawling welfare scandal.
The termination comes about a week after Pigott filed a subpoena on the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation for its communication with several notable people, including former Gov. Phil Bryant, to get to the bottom of why it received $5 million in welfare funds to build a volleyball stadium.
“All I did, and I believe all that caused me to be terminated from representing the department or having anything to do with the litigation, was to try to get the truth about all of that,” Pigott told Mississippi Today hours after his firing on Friday. “People are going to go to jail over this, at least the state should be willing to find out the truth of what happened.”
It is unclear how Pigott’s termination will affect the welfare agency’s civil lawsuit, which promised to probe players in the welfare scheme and answer questions that current criminal proceedings wouldn’t. Just last week, Pigott had scheduled depositions with key players in the scheme, including former NFL quarterback Brett Favre.
Pigott said he was not given a reason for his termination, but that Mississippi Department of Human Services officials told him it was not related to the quality of his legal work.
Officials at the Mississippi Department of Human Services and the Attorney General’s Office, which had to sign off on Pigott’s contract and is included on the civil lawsuit, did not return calls Friday. Pigott said both agencies were aware of his intent to subpoena the athletic foundation days before he filed.
Recent revelations about the welfare scandal, originally investigated by former Bryant campaign manager and Bryant appointee State Auditor Shad White, inspired former state and federal officials to question whether White’s close political ties to Bryant could have jeopardized an impartial investigation.
“I am sure they can find a loyal Republican lawyer to do the work,” said Pigott, a former President Bill Clinton appointee.
Pigott’s firing comes just days after he filed legal documents zoning in on high-profile players in the scheme — including Bryant and Favre — that have so far escaped legal scrutiny for their involvement.
Mississippi Today uncovered in April that Bryant began assisting Favre with a venture called Prevacus just days before the company received a commitment of $2 million in welfare funds. The money came from a nonprofit run by then-First Lady Deborah Bryant’s friend Nancy New, who was given authority to spend tens of millions of funds from MDHS. Texts showed the former governor was poised to accept shares in Prevacus after he left office, until the February 2020 arrests derailed the arrangement.
New, a defendant in the civil suit who also pleaded guilty to charges of bribery and fraud, also recently alleged for the first time publicly that Gov. Bryant directed her to make a $1.1 million welfare payment to Favre.
In early May, Pigott filed a civil suit against 38 people or companies in an attempt to recoup roughly $24 million in welfare money the state says they squandered. These funds were supposed to address poverty in the poorest state in the nation.
Pigott was blocked, however, from including in his initial complaint anything about the $5 million in welfare funds that went to build the USM volleyball stadium — a payment inspired by Favre.
“I was forbidden to do so by political operatives who regard themselves as higher up than the director of the MDHS,” he told Mississippi Today.
MDHS is an agency directly overseen by Gov. Tate Reeves’ office. Reeves appointed the current MDHS director tasked with cleaning up the scandal, Bob Anderson, who worked with Pigott in the local U.S. attorneys office in the 1990s and informed Pigott of his termination Friday.
Before Favre connected with New to fund Prevacus, the pharmaceutical start he was investing in, he had sought her help on the volleyball project.
“She has strong connections and gave me 5 million for Vball facility via grant money,” he texted Jake Vanlandingham, founder of Prevacus, in late 2018.
To justify the payments, New’s nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center disguised the $5 million agreement with the athletic foundation as a lease of the university’s athletic facilities, according to the indictment against Nancy New’s son Zach New. The nonprofit claimed it would use campus property to host events and programs for the area’s “underserved population,” a nod to the actual purpose of the grant funds it was using. In exchange, the athletic foundation would build the volleyball stadium, which it called a “wellness center,” and include offices in the building where the nonprofit could host anti-poverty programs. This never occurred.
Auditor White questioned the $5 million payment in his explosive 2020 audit of the Mississippi Department of Human Services. Alfred Rankins, commissioner of the Institutions of Higher Learning, denied in a letter to White that the board had any involvement in this scheme, to which White responded, “Instead of quibbling, perhaps your time could be better spent providing the public with a plan for the Wellness Center to be used by the at-risk community in Hattiesburg and providing that to me in a letter. This way, the TANF money that was paid for the Center might be used to benefit the community it was intended to benefit.”
Pigott argues the lease agreement was intentionally deceitful.
“It’s obvious from published information that Brett Favre admitted in a text that that $5 million in Department of Human Services grant money was, in his mind, a gift to him, which he made clear was to absolve him of paying that money himself to his alma mater to build such a volleyball facility,” Pigott told Mississippi Today. “That was wrong and it was against the law and it cost the TANF program $5 million.”
“And it’s also obvious from public information,” he continued, “that the USM Athletic Foundation knew all of this and agreed to and signed a sham, fraudulent, so-called lease agreement with Nancy New’s entity pretending that the $5 million was to allow Nancy New’s entity to use the football stadium at USM, and the basketball arena at USM, and the baseball arena at USM, and the parking lots associated therewith, all of which was a lie, as the USM athletic foundation well knew.”
Bryant told Mississippi Today in April that he was aware of Favre’s USM volleyball vision.
“That volleyball thing kept coming up, and popping up, and then it’d go away,” he said.
In the fall of 2019, after the auditor’s investigation had begun, Bryant hosted a meeting at his office with Favre, Nancy New and Bryant’s newly appointed welfare director Christopher Freeze. Favre had been complaining that he “owed” over $1 million on the volleyball stadium. Bryant said New asked in the meeting for more money for the building, which was under construction, and Bryant said he told her “no.”
Pigott subpoenaed communication between USM athletic foundation board members or employees and Phil Bryant, Deborah Bryant, Favre, Nancy New, her sons Zach New and Jess New, former welfare department director John Davis and retired wrestler Ted “Teddy” DiBiase Jr.
“It is also obvious from published information that the number of lies that the USM Athletic Foundation told on a lease agreement is a larger number than perhaps anybody else told on paper in the course of this entire pathetic story of misuse of money intended not to go as gifts to famous celebrities or to athletic programs of universities but instead to go to the neediest families in the state,” Pigott said.
Pigott had also filed a notice of depositions that he scheduled between August and November for the following individuals: Zach New, Jess New, Nicholas Coughlin, Adam Such, Nancy New, Christi Webb, Paul LaCoste, Jacob VanLandingham, Brett Favre, Teddy DiBiase Jr., Brian Smith, Ted DiBiase Sr. and Heart of David Ministries, and Austin Smith. It’s unclear if the state will move forward with these hearings without Pigott.
This story is reprinted with permission by Mississippi Today.