Shad White takes exception to suggestions that he went light on former Gov. Phil Bryant in the state auditor’s investigation into Mississippi’s massive welfare fraud.
“If there’s anybody who doubts that we would fully investigate this case, ... they’re wrong,” White said during a stop Wednesday at the Commonwealth on his way to a fundraiser in Cleveland for his planned reelection campaign next year.
During a 50-minute interview, the state auditor defended his handling of the case, which he has called the largest public corruption case in his office’s history. Although he didn’t speak specifically to questions about Bryant’s knowledge of the funneling of welfare money to causes supported by the governor, including a pharmaceutical start-up, White said it was not in his power to decide whom was charged by state prosecutors.
“Auditors are fact finders. We investigate, we identify facts, communications, financial documents, all of these things that form the body of evidence of cases. Then what do we do with them? We take them to prosecutors ... and they then determine who they would like to charge out of that body of facts,” he said.
“We don’t make decisions about who gets charged or who does not,” said White, noting that he remains under a state judge’s gag order that bars him from discussing many particulars about the scandal.
In February 2020, White’s office, in collaboration with the Hinds County District Attorney’s Office, charged six individuals in connection with the alleged theft or misspending of $77 million in federal welfare funds, which are intended to help the poorest of the poor. Among those charged were Bryant’s former welfare director, John Davis, and Greenwood native and private school owner Nancy New and her son Zachary New. The News have pleaded guilty to fraud and bribery charges and are awaiting sentencing. Davis has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
White has been questioned about not revealing in his exhaustive audit findings the text messages, reportedly in the auditor’s possession, between Bryant, Davis and two principal figures in the allegedly illegal transfer of $2.15 million in federal grant funds to a drug company in Florida called Prevacus.
Those text messages were published earlier this year after being obtained by the news outlet Mississippi Today. The text messages indicate that Bryant was made aware that Prevacus, which was developing a concussion treatment drug, was receiving funding from the state. In addition, the company’s owner, Dr. Jake Vanlandingham, and one of its principal investors, former NFL quarterback Brett Favre, offered Bryant company stock in exchange for the help Bryant provided when he was governor. Bryant appeared to agree by text that he would accept the offer after he left office, but he later backed away when the state’s indictments came out.
Bryant, Vanlandingham and Favre have not been charged with any criminal wrongdoing, although Favre, following a civil demand from the state auditor, has repaid $1.1 million in welfare funds he received for speeches that the auditor’s office said there was no record the former quarterback gave.
White again said Wednesday that he did not initially involve federal officials in the fraud investigation because he felt a solely state probe was the quickest way to stop the misspending. He said, however, that following the 2020 indictments, he turned over all of the state’s evidence from its eight-month investigation to the FBI should federal authorities decide additional charges are warranted.
“They can make their own independent decision about who to pursue, and of course the U.S. Attorney’s Office now can make their own independent decision about who to prosecute based on what the FBI says they believe is criminal,” White said.
“We literally have the FBI right there with us checking our work.”
He said this handoff to federal authorities more than two years ago should satisfy those who question why White did not recuse himself from the investigation due to his past close association with Bryant. White served as policy director when Bryant was lieutenant governor, was his gubernatorial campaign manager in 2015 and was appointed to the state auditor’s job by Bryant in 2018.
White said if he had recused himself, after getting a tip from Bryant about possible fraud in the Department of Human Services, “No. 1, I would not be doing my job. And No. 2, I would be criticized for not doing my job. I believe I had a duty to pursue this case and look at it.”
The Republican state auditor also emphasized the bipartisan nature of those involved in the investigation, discounting suggestions that members of his party were being spared scrutiny. The Hinds County district attorney, Jody Owens II, is a Democrat, and a Democratic administration in Washington currently runs the Justice Department, under whose auspices the FBI and U.S. attorneys operate.
“It’s not as if there’s a whole bunch of Republicans here conspiring together to only look at some things and not others,” he said.
Federal and state prosecutors have said that they have not ruled out bringing charges against other people. White hinted that remains a strong possibility.
“I can guarantee you that at the end of it, some people are going to be really happy with how this ends up, and some people are not, and that is not something that I worry about at all. It’s not something that a prosecutor should worry about. It’s not something that the FBI worries about, I’m certain. What we’re supposed to worry about is whether the facts were fully pursued and whether justice was done at the end of this.”
- Contact Tim Kalich at 662-581-7243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.