Who are Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves and his Department of Human Services director, Bob Anderson, trying to protect?
Former Gov. Phil Bryant? Members of the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation? Both?
Last week’s decision to fire Brad Pigott as the attorney pursuing misspent funds in the state’s massive welfare scandal certainly has the appearance of protecting someone, starting with Anderson’s explanation for the decision.
He said he was taking Pigott off the case, effective at the end of this month when Pigott’s one-year contract expires, because Pigott didn’t consult with the agency before filing a recent subpoena trying to get to the bottom of one of the welfare scandal’s most outrageous expenditures.
Pigott, however, provided evidence to Mississippi Today that Anderson’s accusation is not true. Ten days before Pigott filed a subpoena on the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation for its communications with, among others, Bryant and his wife, Deborah, as well as former NFL quarterback and USM alum Brett Favre, Pigott emailed a draft copy of that proposed subpoena to the general counsel for DHS as well as to the Attorney General’s Office. Presumably both signed off on it.
Pigott apparently stepped on some toes — whose is the question — by looking more closely at the $5 million in welfare money used to build a women’s volleyball facility at USM. This just happened to be a pet project of Favre’s, whose daughter was a member of the team.
The ruse, exposed in the recent guilty pleas to fraud charges by Nancy New and her son Zach, was that the $5 million misappropriation was to be disguised as a lease with the USM foundation. On paper, it would say the money was to be in exchange for using USM’s athletic facilities for welfare programming, which Nancy New’s nonprofit was getting tens of millions of dollars a year to supposedly provide.
Although the $5 million was not included in the DHS lawsuit’s original demands for repayment, Pigott may have been building a case to add it.
It will be interesting to see how actively his replacement will want to pursue the line of inquiry that Pigott had started.
It is also worth noting that firing Pigott took immediate criticism from State Auditor Shad White, whose department laid the groundwork for the civil lawsuit Pigott was hired to pursue.
White suggested that cutting ties with Pigott was a mistake not only because he was doing his job well but also because it creates the impression that partisan considerations are influencing how the case is being handled.
Most of the people tangled up in the mess are either Republicans or closely connected to leading members of Mississippi’s GOP. Pigott, who was appointed to his former job as a U.S. attorney by a Democratic administration, helped provide a bipartisan balance.
Letting him go just raises more suspicions that there are people in power who don’t want all of the truth about this welfare scandal to come out.
Tim Kalich is editor and publisher of The Greenwood Commonwealth