If Shad White can grow out of that baby face of his, he’s going to either be governor of Mississippi one day or one of its U.S. senators.
White, a 36-year-old Rhodes Scholar and Harvard Law School graduate, is as sharp as they come. He’s in the right party to aspire to higher office, since Republicans dominate statewide elections in Mississippi and probably will for the foreseeable future. And as state auditor since 2018, he has earned a deserved reputation as one of the most vigilant watchdogs of the public’s money since Ray Mabus, who used the office of state auditor as a launching pad to the Governor’s Office in the late 1980s.
This praise of White comes from someone who spent half of a 50-minute interview this past week grilling him about whether he let his past close association with Gov. Phil Bryant influence how the state auditor handled the investigation of one of the largest public corruption cases in Mississippi history.
When text messages surfaced earlier this year that cast Bryant into a bad light in regard to the massive welfare fraud that occurred during the last years of his administration, I was disappointed in White for not sharing that information two years earlier.
In February 2020, when White’s agents arrested Bryant’s welfare director and five others, including Greenwood native Nancy New, White made a big splash about the case and the alleged theft or misspending of $77 million in federal welfare funds.
Neither White nor his office’s exhaustive audit findings made mention of the text messages indicating Bryant was made aware that public money was being funneled to private entities the governor supported. Even more suspicious were the previously undisclosed communications showing that the principals in one of those entities, a start-up Florida drug company named Prevacus, were eager to reward Bryant with stock in their company for the help he was giving them while in office and that they anticipated he would be able to provide when he vacated the Governor’s Mansion. Bryant, also via text, sounded receptive to the offer.
The only mention White made of Bryant at the time of the indictments was a positive one. He identified his former boss as the “whistleblower” who tipped the state auditor off onto one small but sensational example of fraud in the Department of Human Services — using $48,000 in welfare money to pay for former pro wrestler Brett DiBiase’s stay at a luxury drug rehabilitation clinic in California. That tip, according to White, began an eight-month investigation that eventually uncovered the rest of the financial shenanigans.
I was unsuccessful in getting White to explain why he had been selective in what he disclosed about Bryant in regard to the scandal. He said he couldn’t really say much about the case because of a state judge’s gag order that bars him from discussing many of the particulars while trials are still pending for two of the accused. He also indicated that the full story has yet to be told but will be as the case winds itself through the criminal justice system.
During my questioning, White never got ruffled or irritated. He almost seemed to enjoy being put on the spot, adroitly parrying my questions. He said it was up to prosecutors, not him, to decide who got charged with a crime based on the evidence the Audit Department put together. He emphasized that for the past two years the FBI and U.S. attorneys have had all of the same evidence, and if state authorities missed anything, the feds will provide a second layer of scrutiny. He said he has a clean conscience about this investigation and all others his office conducts, certain that they are being handled with integrity and impartiality and with the public’s interest foremost in mind.
I tend to believe him, as I think White is one of the good guys in government.
There are other signs that White has higher political ambitions. Most recently, he has been employing a previously little used authority of the state auditor to examine major policy questions, such as brain drain and the state’s high homicide rate. Taking an accountant’s perspective to the problems, the state auditor has been quantifying how bad these problems are and what they cost taxpayers both directly and indirectly. For example, every homicide not only costs the criminal justice system an estimated million dollars, it also impedes economic development, population growth and ultimately tax revenues. “Nobody wants to move to a place that’s crime-riddled,” says White in making the case that hiring additional police officers is an investment that will pay off.
White is running for reelection as state auditor next year and says he doesn’t see himself ever wanting to do anything else. I told him I think I know better. He didn’t correct me.
- Contact Tim Kalich at 662-581-7243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.