Phil Bryant: State fires lawyer investigating former governor

The state Department of Social Services fired Brad Pigott, the former US attorney it pledged to get back millions of federal funds misspent by dozens in Mississippi’s sprawling welfare scandal.

The termination comes about a week after Pigott filed a subpoena with the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation for her communication with several notable people, including former Governor Phil Bryant, to figure out why she received $5 million in welfare fund to build a volleyball stadium.

“All I did, and I believe all that got me fired from representing the department or having anything to do with the litigation, was to try to get the truth out of everything. that,” Pigott told Mississippi Today hours after he was fired. Friday. “People are going to go to jail for this, at least the state should be ready to find out the truth about what happened.”

It’s unclear how Pigott’s firing will affect the welfare agency’s civil lawsuit, which promised to investigate welfare program actors and answer questions that current criminal proceedings would not allow. . As recently as last week, Pigott had scheduled depositions with key players in the scheme, including former NFL quarterback Brett Favre.

Pigott said he was not given a reason for his termination, but that Mississippi Department of Human Services officials told him it was unrelated to the quality of his legal work.

Officials from the Mississippi Department of Human Services and the Attorney General’s Office, who had to sign Pigott’s contract and are included in the civil lawsuit, did not return calls Friday. Pigott said both agencies were aware of his intention to subpoena the sports foundation days before his filing.

Recent revelations about the welfare scandal, originally investigated by former Bryant campaign manager and Bryant-appointed state auditor Shad White, have inspired former state and federal government to question whether White’s close political ties to Bryant could have compromised an impartial investigation.

“I’m sure they can find a loyal Republican lawyer to do the job,” said Pigott, a former president appointed by Bill Clinton.

Pigott’s dismissal comes just days after he filed legal papers on prominent players in the scheme – including Bryant and Favre – who have so far escaped legal scrutiny for their involvement.

Mississippi Today found in April that Bryant began helping Favre with a venture called Prevacus just days before the company received a $2 million wellness fund pledge. The money came from a non-profit organization run by Nancy New, friend of then First Lady Deborah Bryant, who had been authorized to spend tens of millions of MDHS funds. Texts showed the former governor was close to accepting actions from Prevacus after leaving office, until the February 2020 arrests derailed the arrangement.

READ MORE: Phil Bryant had his sights set on payment as welfare funds flowed to Brett Favre

New, a defendant in the civil suit who also pleaded guilty to bribery and fraud charges, also recently publicly alleged for the first time that Governor Bryant ordered him to pay Favre $1.1 million.

In early May, Pigott filed a civil lawsuit against 38 people or businesses seeking to recover about $24 million in welfare the state says it wasted. These funds were supposed to fight poverty in the poorest state in the country.

Pigott, however, was barred from including in his original complaint anything about the $5 million in social funds that went into building the USM volleyball stadium — a payment inspired by Favre.

“I was forbidden to do so by political operatives who consider themselves higher than the director of MDHS,” he told Mississippi Today.

MDHS is an agency directly overseen by the office of Governor Tate Reeves. Reeves named the current MDHS director responsible for cleaning up the scandal, Bob Anderson, who worked with Pigott at the local US Attorney’s office in the 1990s and informed Pigott of his dismissal on Friday.

Before Favre connected with New to fund Prevacus, the pharmaceutical start-up he was investing in, he had asked for his help with the volleyball project.

“She has strong connections and gave me 5 million for installing Vball through a grant,” he texted Prevacus founder Jake Vanlandingham in late 2018.

To justify the payments, the nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center in New disguised the $5 million deal with the athletic foundation as a lease of the university’s athletic facilities, according to the deed. charge against Nancy New’s son, Zach New. The non-profit organization said it would use the campus property to organize events and programs for the area’s “underserved population”, a nod to the real purpose of the grant funds that she was using. In exchange, the sports foundation would build the volleyball stadium, which it called a “wellness center,” and include offices in the building where the nonprofit could house anti-corruption programs. poverty. It never happened.

READ MORE: ‘You craned my neck’: Brett Favre used fame and favors to squeeze welfare dollars

Auditor White questioned the $5 million payment in his explosive 2020 audit of the Mississippi Department of Human Services. Alfred Rankins, commissioner of the Institutions of Higher Learning, denied in a letter to White that the board had been involved in this project, to which White replied: “Instead of quibbling, perhaps your time could be best used to provide the public with a plan for the wellness center to be used by the at-risk Hattiesburg community and provided it to me in a letter. In this way, the TANF money that was donated for the center could be used to benefit the community for which it was intended.

Pigott argues that the rental agreement was intentionally misleading.

“It is clear from the published information that Brett Favre admitted in a text that this $5 million grant from the Department of Human Services was, in his mind, a gift to him, which he clearly stated was from the absolve himself of paying that money himself to his alma mater to build such a volleyball facility,” Pigott told Mississippi Today. “It was wrong and it was against the law and it cost $5 million. dollars to the TANF program.”

“And it also appears from public information,” he continued, “that the USM Athletic Foundation was aware of all of this and agreed to and signed a fraudulent fake rental agreement with the Nancy New entity claiming that the $5 million was to allow Nancy New Entity to use USM football stadium, and USM basketball arena, and USM baseball arena, and parking lots associates, which was a lie, as the USM sports foundation well knew.

Bryant told Mississippi Today in April that he was aware of Favre’s USM volleyball vision.

“This volleyball thing kept popping up and popping up and then it was going away,” he said.

In the fall of 2019, after the auditor’s investigation began, Bryant arranged a meeting at his office with Favre, Nancy New, and Bryant’s new welfare director, Christopher Freeze. Favre had complained that he “owed” over a million dollars for the volleyball stadium. Bryant said New asked at the meeting for more money for the building, which was under construction, and Bryant said he told him “no.”

Pigott subpoenaed communication between members or employees of the USM athletic foundation board and Phil Bryant, Deborah Bryant, Favre, Nancy New, his sons Zach New and Jess New, the former director of social work John Davis and retired wrestler Ted “Teddy” DiBiase Jr.

“It also appears from published information that the number of lies the USM Athletic Foundation has told on a lease is a higher number than perhaps anyone else has told on paper in this entire pathetic history. of misappropriation of money intended not to go as gifts to famous celebrities or college athletic programs, but rather to go to the most needy families in the state,” Pigott said.

Pigott had also filed notice of depositions that he scheduled between August and November for the following people: Zach New, Jess New, Nicholas Coughlin, Adam Such, Nancy New, Christi Webb, Paul LaCoste, Jacob VanLandingham, Brett Favre, Teddy DiBiase Jr., Brian Smith, Ted DiBiase Sr. and Heart of David Ministries, and Austin Smith. It’s unclear if the state will move forward with those hearings without Pigott.

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