Former Mississippi governor sues news site over welfare fraud comments

Jul 27, 2023, 11:34 AM

FILE - Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant ponders a response to a question regarding his legacy following...

FILE - Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant ponders a response to a question regarding his legacy following a life of public service, Jan. 8, 2020, while sitting in his Jackson, Miss., Capitol office. On Wednesday, July 26, 2023, the former Mississippi governor filed suit against a local news organization, claiming it defamed him in public comments on the misspending of $77 million of federal welfare funds intended to help some of the poorest people in the U.S. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant is suing a local news organization, claiming it defamed him in public comments on the misspending of $77 million of federal welfare funds intended to help some of the poorest people in the U.S.

The lawsuit comes just over two months after Mississippi Today and one of its reporters, Anna Wolfe, won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the welfare misspending. Bryant’s attorney filed a complaint Wednesday in the Circuit Court of Madison County against the outlet’s CEO, Mary Margaret White, and Deep South Today, the outlet’s nonprofit owner.

The lawsuit, which does not appear to challenge the veracity of Mississippi Today’s findings about the welfare scandal, claims White and other employees made “slanderous” or unfounded comments about Bryant when discussing the outlet’s reporting in several public settings.

“Governor Bryant believes he has been libeled by Mississippi Today,” wrote Denton Gibbes, a Bryant spokesperson, in an email. “He is confident in the suit he has brought and, through his attorneys, will convince 12 residents of Madison County of just that.”

Henry Laird, an attorney representing Mississippi Today, said he was still reviewing the lawsuit Thursday afternoon.

At the center of the lawsuit is a 2022 “impact report” published by the news site, a 2023 appearance at a national media conference by White and a Pulitzer Prize award announcement. In each of those instances, the outlet misrepresented Bryant’s connection to the squandered welfare dollars, argued William Quinn II, Bryant’s attorney. The comments amount to a concerted effort to damage Bryant’s reputation, Quinn wrote.

The lawsuit also cited what it asserted were unfair comments in a radio interview given by Wolfe and a podcast episode featuring Wolfe and Mississippi Today Editor-in-Chief Adam Ganucheau. Taken together, Quinn argued the comments amount to a concerted effort to damage Bryant’s reputation.

Mississippi Today had already published an apology from White in May, a week after Bryant threatened a lawsuit, but he has since demanded new retractions. Bryant said in a certified letter May 11 that White made a “false and defamatory” statement about him when, at a journalism conference in February, she said the outlet broke the story that Bryant “embezzled” welfare money.

No criminal charges have been filed against Bryant, and he has said he told the auditor in 2019 about possible misspending of money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families antipoverty program.

Mississippi Auditor Shad White announced in February 2020 that criminal charges were brought against six people, including John Davis, a former Mississippi Department of Human Services executive director who had been chosen by Bryant. The announcement came weeks after Bryant, a Republican, finished his second and final term as governor. Davis and others have pleaded guilty.

Wolfe’s “The Backchannel” series shed light on the misspending of welfare funds intended for poor Mississippians that were instead diverted to the rich and powerful. Prosecutors have said the state’s human services department gave money to nonprofit organizations that spent it on projects such as a $5 million volleyball facility at the University of Southern Mississippi — a project for which retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre agreed to raise money. Favre’s daughter played volleyball at the university.

Favre has also not been charged with a crime, but the Mississippi Department of Human Services, with a new director, filed a civil lawsuit last year against him, along with more than three dozen other people and businesses, to try to recover more than $20 million of the misspent welfare money.

Bryant’s lawsuit was filed on the same day stump speeches for statewide officials began at the Neshoba County Fair, one of the marquee political events of the year. Mississippi’s incumbent Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, who is running for reelection, has called Mississippi Today a “Democratic SuperPAC” and has refused to answer its reporters’ questions at campaign events.


Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him on Twitter at

National News

Supporters wave to former President Donald Trump as he arrives to the Milwaukee Mitchell Internatio...

Associated Press

America’s toxic political climate faces calls to ‘tone it down’ after assassination attempt on Trump

WASHINGTON (AP) — “Tone it down!” That was the plea from one Republican congressman as he came to grips with the assassination attempt against Donald Trump at a political rally in the Butler Farm area where he grew up. “I am in a state of bewilderment of how and what has happened to the United […]

1 hour ago

Associated Press

Winston, beloved gorilla at San Diego Zoo Safari Park, dies at 52 after suffering health problems

ESCONDIDO, Calif. (AP) — Winston, a western lowland gorilla who was a favorite attraction at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, has died at the age of 52 after suffering multiple health problems, officials said. The park said Winston was euthanized Saturday after veterinarians determined his condition was declining. “After careful consideration stemming from furthering […]

2 hours ago

Photo: Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump is surrounded by U.S. Secret...

Julie Carr Smyth, Jill Colvin, Colleen Long, Michael Balsamo, Eric Tucker and Michelle L. Price, The Associated Press

Trump heads to convention as authorities investigate motive, security in assassination attempt

Trump called for unity and resilience after an attempt on his life added fresh uncertainty to an already tumultuous presidential campaign.

2 hours ago

Photo: President Joe Biden speaks from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Sunday,...

Will Weissert and Zeke Miller, The Associated Press

In primetime address, Biden says country must not go down road of political violence

President Joe Biden says “we can’t, we must not go down” the road of political violence in America after the attempted Trump assassination.

3 hours ago

Gov. Greg Abbott receives a briefing for Hurricane Beryl from local elected officials Sunday, July ...

Associated Press

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott demands answers as customers remain without power after Beryl

DALLAS (AP) — With around 350,000 homes and businesses still without power in the Houston area almost a week after Hurricane Beryl hit Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott on Sunday said he’s demanding an investigation into the response of the utility that serves the area as well as answers about its preparations for upcoming storms. “Power […]

5 hours ago

Associated Press

Acclaimed video artist Bill Viola dies at 73, created landmark `Tristan und Isolde’ production

LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Bill Viola, a video artist who combined with director Peter Sellars on a groundbreaking production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” originally seen in Los Angeles, Paris and New York, has died at age 73. Viola died Friday at his home in Long Beach of Alzheimer’s disease, his website announced. What […]

6 hours ago

Former Mississippi governor sues news site over welfare fraud comments