Mississippi Fires Lawyer Trying to Recoup Misused Welfare Funds
ATLANTA — A lawyer working for a Mississippi state agency and trying to recoup tens of millions of dollars in misused welfare funds was fired on Friday after he issued a subpoena that could turn up details about the involvement of prominent Mississippians — including the former Governor Phil Bryant and the retired football star Brett Favre — in one of the ugliest scandals to shake the nation’s poorest state in recent years.
The lawyer, J. Brad Pigott, a former U.S. attorney, had been working for the Mississippi Department of Human Services, the agency that distributes Mississippi’s federal welfare block grants. A state audit in 2020 found that as much as $94 million in federal funds may have been misspent in Mississippi. Instead of going to poor families, the audit found, much of the money ended up in the pockets of prominent Mississippians, including Mr. Favre, a Mississippi native, who was paid $1.1 million for speaking engagements he did not attend.
Mr. Favre eventually paid $1.1 million back to the state, but the state auditor continues to demand $228,000 in accrued interest. More recently, an allegation surfaced in court documents that Mr. Bryant, a former two-term governor, directed the $1.1 million payment to Mr. Favre, a claim Mr. Bryant reportedly denies. Both Mr. Bryant and Tate Reeves, the current governor, are Republicans.
The firing of Mr. Pigott, first reported by the online news outlet Mississippi Today, is connected to another component of the scandal: $5 million in welfare money that went to the construction of a volleyball facility at the University of Southern Mississippi, in Hattiesburg.
A few days before his firing, Mr. Pigott — who drafted a lawsuit on the agency’s behalf seeking the return of more than $20 million from 38 entities and people, including Mr. Favre — filed a subpoena, directed at the university’s athletic foundation. The subpoena asks for documents connected to the funding of the volleyball building.
It also asks the foundation to produce any communications its members may have had with Mr. Favre, Mr. Bryant and Mr. Bryant’s wife, Deborah Bryant, among others. Efforts to reach representatives of the athletic foundation were unsuccessful on Saturday evening.
Robert G. Anderson, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, said on Saturday that Mr. Pigott had been relieved of his duties because he filed the subpoena without consulting with the agency first. But Mississippi Today obtained an email showing that Mr. Pigott sent a draft copy to the agency’s lawyer and the state attorney general’s office 10 days before he filed it.
In a statement on Saturday, Shelby Wilcher, a spokeswoman for Governor Reeves, said that there were “many capable lawyers who can handle the work necessary to recover stolen TANF funds,” referring to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the federal welfare program.
She said that as Mr. Pigott’s one-year contract was about to expire, “it was decided that a semiretired solo practitioner was not the right person to sign on for more work.”
Ms. Wilcher added that the Department of Human Services was hiring new lawyers to “vigorously pursue” the matter. “This work to recover misspent funds will continue uninterrupted, with a full-service law firm that is capable of handling it professionally,” she said.
In a phone interview on Saturday, Mr. Pigott said that when he was fired by Mr. Anderson, he was told it had nothing to do with the quality of his legal work. In fact, he said, he was given no other reason for his dismissal. Mr. Pigott laid the blame not with Mr. Anderson but with Mr. Reeves’s office.
“I believe I was fired as a result of a pattern of orders from the Mississippi governor’s office concerning protecting an entity, called the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation, from any responsibility in this matter,” he said.
Asked to be more specific about the “orders,” Mr. Pigott declined to comment.
He also described how Mr. Favre was involved in the matter of the volleyball building. He said the quarterback, who played at Southern Miss from 1987 to 1990 before going on to a storied professional career, had promised to give $5 million for the building’s construction.
Instead, Mr. Pigott said, Mr. Favre asked that the money be paid by the Mississippi Community Education Center. The center, a nonprofitlauded by Mississippi conservatives for its efforts to help poor people achieve self-sufficiency, had been contracted to distribute federal welfare money by the state. It was run by Nancy New, a well-connected figure in Mississippi Republican circles who was friends with Ms. Bryant and who pleaded guilty in April to misusing welfare funds.
The nonprofit paid the $5 million, but then disguised it as a payment for use of university facilities that did not occur, Mr. Pigott said.
Mr. Pigott served as a federal prosecutor from 1994 to 2001, after an appointment by former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat. He said he had taken the Department of Human Services job out of a sense of duty and disgust.
“I’m a born and raised Mississippian, and this particular kind of fraud was just an especially offensive failure to use money to serve what the TANF law calls ‘needy families,’ of which we have an excess supply in Mississippi, and do have great, great needs,” he said. “I found it especially offensive that they so cavalierly spent so many millions of dollars intended to remove poverty in this state, and instead spend it on each other and celebrity figures and corporations and their favorite institutions.”
Mississippi politics has for years been dominated by Republicans who tend to be skeptical about the efficacy of the federal welfare system. Their concern about the potential misuse of federal funds by poor people has resulted in the enactment of strict safeguards to prevent fraud, and the state has been particularly careful about which poor people can get aid: An article from ThinkProgress, a progressive news site, found that in 2016, only 167 of the 11,700 Mississippi families who applied for a TANF payment were approved.
Critics say that the abuse that has occurred in Mississippi should have been foreseen when the old welfare system, which gave cash benefits to poor families, was replaced in 1996 by a system of block grants issued to the states, giving them much more leeway on how to spend the money.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been examining the scandal for more than two years, according to Logan Reeves, a spokesman for the state auditor’s office. This month, Representative Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, asked Attorney General Merrick Garland to focus on Mr. Favre and Mr. Bryant, writing that the latter “has clearly taken actions consistent with ensuring Mississippi’s poorest citizens are denied welfare funds meant to benefit their households.”
“The people of Mississippi deserve answers,” Mr. Thompson wrote.
Mr. Bryant did not immediately respond to a message on Saturday, but in a previous statement this month prompted by Mr. Thompson’s letter, a representative for Mr. Bryant said he denied any wrongdoing. “These allegations made against Gov. Bryant are false,” the statement said. “Every claim against these individuals was discovered and prosecuted as a result of an investigation Gov. Bryant requested of the state auditor.”
In April, Mississippi Today reported that $1.7 million in welfare money went to a pharmaceutical company Mr. Favre had invested in, and that Mr. Bryant, who knew that public funds were going to the company, had agreed to take stock in the company just after leaving office. (In the end, the news service reported, Mr. Bryant did not take the stock.)
Efforts to reach Mr. Favre on Saturday were unsuccessful. Officials said at the time the audit was released that there was no evidence indicating that Mr. Favre knew the money he had received from the nonprofit for the speaking fees had come from welfare funds.