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Let Them Eat Volleyball: Mississippi Blew Welfare Funds On College Sports Facility
Poor people would have just wasted that money on their families.
Mississippi is not a good place in which to be poor. It's the go-to state for other states with crappy social programs to compare themselves to: "Thank God for Mississippi!" (To be fair, sometimes you can swap in "Alabama" just as well.) Like lots of states with Republican leadership, Mississippi is sure poor people would just waste federal anti-poverty money on rent and food and probably sin, because if they were decent people they wouldn't be poor, now would they?
Instead, on the assumption that public-private partnerships can waste money far more efficiently, Mississippi directs most of its federal block grant money to nonprofits that allegedly serve low-income families in one way or another. But in recent years, it appears Mississippi went well past the usual legal diversion of welfare funds to crappy nonprofits, instead plowing tens of millions of federal dollars into schemes that benefited Mississippi movers and shakers and their friends, including former NFL guy Brett Favre, who, as the New York Times explains,
was paid $1.1 million for speaking engagements he did not attend.
Mr. Favre eventually paid $1.1 million back to the state, but the state auditor continues to demand $228,000 in accrued interest. More recently, an allegation surfaced in court documents that [Phil] Bryant, a former two-term governor, directed the $1.1 million payment to Mr. Favre, a claim Mr. Bryant reportedly denies. Both Mr. Bryant and Tate Reeves, the current governor, are Republicans.
Also too, some $5 million in federal money intended to help needy families went to help fund a new volleyball stadium at the University of Southern Mississippi, Favre's alma mater, according to Mississippi Today. And in the latest development in the scandal, the state on Friday fired the attorney it had hired to retrieve up to $98 million in allegedly misused federal funds, right after the attorney subpoenaed the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation for copies of emails related to the stadium, including a request for emails from Bryant and other bigwigs.
We're sure it's all very legal and very cool.
According to Robert Anderson, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, the attorney, former US Attorney J. Brad Pigott, was relieved of his duties for failing to notify the department he planned to file the subpoena. Yeah, that's it, he was insubordinate. Except oops, Mississippi Today obtained an email from Pigott to MDHS and to the state attorney general's Office that included a draft of the subpoena, sent 10 days before he filed it.
I'll confess, I don't always check my email and sometimes I miss information, but I am not a state agency going around firing attorneys and saying it was for something they didn't do.
How Is This Even Possible?
Let's back up a moment. Back in the 1996 "welfare reform" law, the federal government eliminated direct cash payments to people in poverty, replacing "welfare" with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), which provided states with block grants that states could use to provide cash assistance, or to fight poverty in any way they saw fit. As we've noted previously, some states spend the entire block grants on cash help. But many don't.
The federal rules also allow states to use TANF funds for other programs, as long as the state says with a straight face (and some kind of documentation) that the programs assist low-income families with kids. In a lot of red states, that justification gets stretched pretty far, with TANF funds going to support "abstinence only" teenage summer camps or "healthy marriage" classes that will supposedly prevent single-parent families, and thereby help reduce poverty. Some states even use TANF funds for scholarships for private colleges, so kids from well-off homes won't end up getting food stamps we guess.
In Mississippi — again, poorest state in the nation — the logic seems to have been that since TANF funds can go to almost anything, why not use the money to get rich instead of even pretending to provide services to the poor? MIssissippi Today blew the lid off the story in 2020 and has continued covering it since then, so hooray for nonprofit investigative journalism outfits!
Now, Back To The Firing Of Brad Pigott
Pigott was hired by MDHS to claw back as much of the illegally-used TANF money as possible. But it sure is an interesting coincidence that he got fired shortly after filing that subpoena, which sought emails related to the volleyball stadium project, including communications with Bryant and Favre. Pigott told the Times that Favre had promised to donate $5 million for the volleyball building. But hey, why spend his own money if there's another source of funds?
Instead, Mr. Pigott said, Mr. Favre asked that the money be paid by the Mississippi Community Education Center. The center, a nonprofit lauded by Mississippi conservatives for its efforts to help poor people achieve self-sufficiency, had been contracted to distribute federal welfare money by the state. It was run by Nancy New, a well-connected figure in Mississippi Republican circles who was friends with [former first lady Deborah] Bryant and who pleaded guilty in April to misusing welfare funds.
The nonprofit paid the $5 million, but then disguised it as a payment for use of university facilities that did not occur, Mr. Pigott said.
The embezzlement scheme that ultimately led to the conviction of Ms. New was the first of many shoes to drop in the Mississippi welfare scandal.
Mr. Pigott certainly seems like a starry-eyed idealist; he told the Times that he approached MDHS job "out of a sense of duty and disgust."
“I’m a born and raised Mississippian, and this particular kind of fraud was just an especially offensive failure to use money to serve what the TANF law calls ‘needy families,’ of which we have an excess supply in Mississippi, and do have great, great needs,” he said. “I found it especially offensive that they so cavalierly spent so many millions of dollars intended to remove poverty in this state, and instead spend it on each other and celebrity figures and corporations and their favorite institutions.”
Well sure, but otherwise those funds might have gone to poor people, and lord only knows how they may have misspent the money. Food, rent, maybe even some luxury like car repairs? Haha, we kid: Evidence to the contrary, Republicans assume poor parents spend all their money irresponsibly, so why not just give the federal money to a retired f'ball player's favorite causes anyway?
Wouldn't it be something if this whole ugly mess led to some federal reforms? Like maybe requiring that TANF funds actually be used to provide assistance to people who need it? You know, like how the expanded child tax credit cut child poverty before it was discontinued?
Ah, but that can't work. Fox News would find one poor family that has too nice a car, and then everyone else would see their benefits cut.
[ NYT / Mississippi Today / The Uncertain Hour / Center on Budget and Policy Priorities / Mississippi Today / Photos: Tammy Anthony Baker (cropped); Wisconsin National Guard (Cropped), Creative Commons License 2.0 ]
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