Mississippi ex-governor threatens to sue news site over welfare fraud comments

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant gave notice Wednesday that he will sue a news organization unless it apologizes for statements he said some of its employees made about him in connection to misspending of welfare money that was intended to help some of the poorest people in the U.S.

A reporter for the nonprofit online publication, Mississippi Today, won a Pulitzer Prize this week for her coverage of the case.

According to Bryant, Mississippi Today CEO Mary Margaret White made a “false and defamatory” statement about him when she spoke at a media conference in February. The letter also said Mississippi Today executive editor Adam Ganucheau and the reporter who won the Pulitzer Prize, Anna Wolfe, falsely claimed in a podcast that Mississippi Today employees “had never stated that former-Governor Bryant had committed a crime.”

The state auditor announced in February 2020 that criminal charges were brought against six people, including 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.

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 law says anyone who intends to sue for libel or slander must give written notice before a lawsuit is filed, and that a news organization has 10 days to issue a correction, apology or retraction.

Bryant's demand that Mississippi Today publish corrections was issued in a certified letter to the news outlet from his lawyer, William Quin II. It was published Wednesday on a website that Bryant used last week to release other information about the welfare fraud investigation.

He's also demanding that White, Ganucheau and Wolfe publicly apologize.

Henry Laird, an attorney representing Mississippi Today, said in a statement Wednesday: “We have received the demand for retraction from Gov. Bryant’s attorney. We’re reviewing it carefully so that we can reply to that demand as quickly as possible.”

State Auditor Shad White has said that from 2016 to 2019, the Mississippi Department of Human Services misspent more than $77 million in welfare money. Prosecutors have said the 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.

The Mississippi Department of Human Services, with a new director, filed a civil lawsuit last year against Favre and more than three dozen other people and businesses to try to recover more than $20 million of the misspent welfare money. No criminal charges have been brought against Favre.

Bryant is not among those being sued, but attorneys for some of the defendants in the civil suit have filed court papers that include text-message exchanges between Bryant, Favre and others about spending welfare money on the volleyball arena, using a lease arrangement because welfare money can't be spent on construction. Bryant last week released more than 400 pages of his own text messages related to the welfare fraud investigation.