In February, Mississippi Today CEO Mary Margaret White told a conference hosted by the Knight Foundation that her newsroom broke the story that $77 million in welfare funds had been “embezzled” by Bryant and “his bureaucratic cronies.” Bryant has now alleged that the statement is defamation.
On Monday, Mississippi Today staff received word that reporter Anna Wolfe had won a Pulitzer Prize. The Pulitzer Prize Board said the award was for “revealing how a former Mississippi governor used his office to steer millions of state welfare dollars to benefit his family and friends, including NFL quarterback Brett Favre.”
On Wednesday, the outlet received a different kind of notice. The “former Mississippi governor,” Phil Bryant, sent a letter giving Mississippi Today notice of his intent to file a defamation lawsuit. The claim of defamation reflected in the letter is largely rooted in statements made by Mississippi Today CEO Mary Margaret White at a conference hosted by the Knight Foundation.
While speaking on a panel, White boasted, “we’re the newsroom that broke the story about $77 million in welfare funds intended for the poorest people in the poorest state in the nation being embezzled by a former governor and his bureaucratic cronies.”
Bryant now claims this statement was defamatory. To understand the merit of Bryant’s position, one must understand what embezzlement is and what constitutes defamation.
Is there any evidence that could support a claim that Phil Bryant embezzled $77 million?
Under Mississippi law, a charge of embezzlement requires proof of “unlawful conversion for personal use property that comes into his or her hands by virtue of his or her office or employment.”
Whether the TANF money improperly spent by the Mississippi Department of Human Services, and its subgrantees Mississippi Community Education Center and Family Resource Center, was ever in former-Gov. Bryant’s “hands”–that he exercised control over those funds–is one pertinent question.
In addition to the Pulitzer’s framing–that Bryant steered “millions of state welfare dollars to benefit his family and friends”–Mississippi Today previously couched its own reporting, in a 2022 Impact Report, as having:
“[R]evealed former Gov. Phil Bryant’s role in a sprawling welfare scandal. Each part of the series delved further into Bryant’s misuse and squandering of at least $77 million in federal funds meant to assist nearly 588,000 of the state’s poorest residents.”
Despite these claims, there is no concrete evidence that would support a claim that Bryant steered TANF funds to family and friends. There’s certainly no evidence that Bryant, himself, “misused and squandered” $77 million in federal funds.
But setting aside the question of control of TANF funds, there is also no publicly available evidence that Bryant ever converted (took) TANF dollars for his personal use. No document, no witness, has ever demonstrated that TANF dollars ended up in Bryant’s possession. There is a laundry list of other people, not named Bryant, for whom there is ample evidence of improperly receiving TANF funds. If he was the mastermind of this entire scheme, it is arguably odd that he was the only one not enriched by it.
The former Governor has not been accused of embezzlement by any law enforcement agency. He’s not been charged with embezzlement by any prosecutor. He’s not been convicted of embezzlement by any jury. In fact, he’s not been accused of or charged with any crime, nor even named in pending civil litigation that has forty-six named defendants.
What’s required to prove defamation?
To prove defamation, Bryant must not only prove the statement made by White was false, but that it was “defamatory.” Bryant’s attorney, Billy Quinn, points out in their letter that, under Mississippi law, a defamatory statement is one:
[W]hich tends to injure one’s reputation, and thereby expose him to public hatred, contempt or ridicule, degrade him in society, lessen him in public esteem or lower him in the confidence of the community.
Bryant must also prove that the statement was published to third parties. The video was posted by the Knight Foundation online, where anyone with an internet connection can access it.
Because he is a public figure, he must also prove something called “actual malice,” which essentially means that he must show that White knew what she was saying was untrue or that she said it with a reckless disregard for whether it was true. Sometimes referred to as “Times malice,” because it came out of a Supreme Court case called New York Times v. Sullivan, this standard represents the highest hurdle for a public figure plaintiff in most defamation cases.
The letter also includes allegations against Mississippi Today Editor-in-Chief Adam Ganucheau and Reporter Anna Wolfe for misrepresenting whether the outlet had ever accused Bryant of a crime, and for misrepresenting whether the outlet had ever had to issue a correction in the course of the Back Channel series.
Bryant’s letter specifically mentions an “Editor’s note on our welfare coverage,” published on September 28, 2022, in which the outlet admitted for the first time that Ganucheau’s mother, Stephanie Ganucheau, was the special assistant attorney general who had signed off on the plan to fund the volleyball facility at Southern Miss.
What comes next?
Under Mississippi law, Bryant was required to send this letter to Mississippi Today before it could file suit. Mississippi Today, in turn, has ten days to evaluate the merits of the letter and if they feel the claim has merit, issue an apology and correction.
Even if they issue an apology and correction, Bryant could still sue for defamation. But by issuing an apology and correction, Mississippi Today might foreclose Bryant from collecting punitive damages and attorney’s fees were he to prevail at trial.
Mississippi Today likely has director and officer liability insurance for defamation claims. If so, their insurance carrier will also be involved in assessing liability and determining next steps.
Were litigation to proceed, Bryant would have the ability to conduct discovery on Mississippi Today, including examining internal communications, and potentially communications with sources, to establish the elements of his case.
Intent to Sue Letter by Russ Latino on Scribd