Welfare head says surprise subpoena led to attorney’s firing. Emails suggest it wasn’t a surprise.
Published 5:31 am Sunday, July 24, 2022
By Anna Wolfe
Mississippi Department of Human Services Director Bob Anderson said he took attorney Brad Pigott off the state’s ongoing civil lawsuit in the welfare scandal because Pigott didn’t consult with the agency before filing a recent subpoena that named the former governor.
But a July 1 email obtained by Mississippi Today shows Pigott sent a draft copy of the subpoena to both the Attorney General’s Office and the welfare agency’s general counsel — 10 days before he filed it.
On July 11, Pigott filed a subpoena on the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation for its communication with several key players in the case, including former Gov. Phil Bryant and retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre. He also subpoenaed Supertalk, a high-powered conservative talk radio network, for interviews with defendants in the suit.
The athletic department had received $5 million in welfare funds from the embattled nonprofit founder Nancy New to build a new volleyball stadium on behalf of Favre — the single largest known purchase in the scandal.
But the USM Athletic Foundation and Supertalk, both of which received welfare payments that auditors have questioned, were not named as defendants in the lawsuit.
“Please look over these DRAFT subpoenas to 2 non-parties, which you and I have talked about only generally,” Pigott wrote in the July 1 email to Assistant Attorney General Stephen Schelver, copying MDHS attorney Patrick Black. “Let me know if you have edits.”
On Friday, the week after Pigott filed the subpoenas and Mississippi Today first published them, MDHS abruptly removed him from the case.
MDHS hired Pigott, a former U.S. attorney who filed civil litigation against 38 individuals or companies in early May, on a year-long contract that was set to expire July 30. The goal of the lawsuit is to recover misspent welfare funds — federal dollars that were intended to help Mississippi’s neediest residents. While Pigott’s client was MDHS, the attorney general’s office approved Pigott’s contract and is included as counsel on the lawsuit.
Attorney General’s Office spokesperson Michelle Williams told Mississippi Today on Saturday that her office is not involved in decisions about who MDHS chooses to represent the agency.
However, the governor’s office, which directly oversees MDHS, was.
“While the Governor has not been closely involved, the Governor’s office has worked closely with DHS throughout our efforts to recover the fraudulent spending that occurred before the Reeves term began,” reads a statement Reeves’ office released Saturday. “That included discussions about the decision not to extend Brad Pigott’s contract. DHS has done a great job explaining the myriad reasons why a more professional, full-service law firm was required. Recovering the stolen TANF funds is a priority for DHS, and we always engage with our agencies on their priorities.”
Pigott said MDHS did not give him a reason he would not remain on the case but told him the decision was not indicative of the quality of his legal work. Pigott told Mississippi Today he believed his termination was politically motivated.
On Saturday, a day after Mississippi Today broke news of Pigott’s firing, MDHS released a statement saying Pigott had “made decisions about the litigation and filed pleadings without any prior dialogue with officials at MDHS.”
“Although USM Athletic Foundation is not yet a party in this case, Brad Pigott issued an extensive subpoena to that entity without any prior discussion of the matter with MDHS,” Anderson said in his statement. “Attorneys represent clients, and MDHS is the client in this case. I hope I don’t need to explain that an attorney needs to remain in close communication with his client at all times. Any review of complaints filed with the Mississippi Bar will reveal that communication— or lack thereof— is at the center of many of those complaints. When it becomes apparent that the client and the lawyer are not on the same page, the client has every right to find another attorney.”
Anderson’s statement appears to confirm Pigott’s suspicion that he was terminated because of his subpoena on the athletic foundation and his attempts to answer how $5 million in federal funds from an anti-poverty program were converted to build a volleyball stadium. This was a project Bryant was aware of, Mississippi Today previously reported.
“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 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.”
State Auditor Shad White, who initially investigated the welfare scheme, reacted to the news of Pigott’s termination on social media Saturday morning.
“Firing Pigott is a mistake,” White wrote. “From the beginning of this case, I said having a bipartisan team look at this case is important. That’s one of the many reasons I gave our findings to the DA of Hinds Co, who’s a Democrat. I’ve also, of course, given everything to the FBI. Pigott worked well with my office, communicating regularly with us about the status of the case and how we could share information. I hope Pigott’s firing doesn’t delay the recovery of the millions of misspent welfare money that we identified in our audits.”
The MDHS statement said the agency will retain new counsel and that this decision does not change its commitment to recouping misspent TANF funds.
“I am sure they can find a loyal Republican lawyer to do the work,” Pigott said Friday.
This story is reprinted with permission from Mississippi Today.