As columnist Sid Salter writes, the entire welfare scandal is beyond troubling, but there is some context missing and certain claims are simply not factual.
Founded in 2016 and “supported by grants from foundations, by contributions from donors and sponsors and by advertising,” the website Mississippi Today bills itself as a “digital-first, nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom serving Mississippi.”
The organization’s last published audit from 2020 showed $2.5 million in net assets.
Without question, Mississippi Today’s best-known story is reporter Anna Wolfe’s series of stories on the alleged misspending by Mississippi officials of what is identified as $77 million in federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds – welfare funds intended for the poor in the poorest state in the union.
Mississippi Today promotes Wolfe’s stories as having “revealed 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.”
Bryant has strongly, consistently, and frequently asserted that he hasn’t broken the law.
But the “news organization” is so certain of their story that in February, Mississippi Today chief executive officer Mary Margaret White told a Knight Foundation Media Forum audience: “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 to be used on pet projects like a state-of-the-art volleyball stadium at Brett Favre’s alma mater.”
The problem with White’s statement is that to date, it simply isn’t factual. Phil Bryant hasn’t been charged with any crime, arrested for any crime nor indicted by a state or federal grand jury for any crime – including embezzlement.
In 1895, in a case styled Moore v. United States, the Supreme Court defined embezzlement and outlined four specific elements required to prove the crime of embezzlement. One of those specific elements is that “the defendant’s dealing with the property constituted a fraudulent conversion or appropriation of it to his/her own use.”
So far, neither State Auditor Shad White, the Hinds County District Attorney, nor the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi have revealed any evidence suggesting that Phil Bryant received any conversion of TANF funds to his use or possession.
To be sure, the entire welfare scandal is beyond troubling. But there is some context missing. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reviewed TANF spending across the country and found that in Mississippi in 2021, our state spent about $57 million. Some 6% of that was spent on basic assistance, 34% on work activities, and 3% on childcare.
But CBPP also noted nationally: “States have broad flexibility over the use of state and federal TANF funds. Many have used that flexibility to divert funds away from income support for families and toward other state budget areas often unrelated to TANF’s goals. In 2021, states spent only about a fifth of the funds on basic assistance to meet essential needs of families with children.”
Nonpartisan analysts Stateline.org is even more pointed in their assessment: “Congress gave states significant flexibility to decide on cash benefits amounts, eligibility and other requirements. It also allowed states wide latitude on how they can spend TANF dollars, as long as they are used for at least one of four broad purposes: giving assistance to needy families so children can be cared for in their own homes or with relatives, promoting job preparation and work, preventing and reducing out-of-wedlock pregnancies and encouraging two-parent families.”
In recent days, Bryant released a trove of text messages in an effort to clear his name and to make his case that his actions weren’t illegal.
If federal or state officials have evidence against Bryant for embezzlement, they should act on it. Charge him, arrest him, indict him. If they don’t have such evidence, they should say so. Bryant’s reputation is being shredded and releasing texts unfortunately won’t clear his name.
And it’s also important to note what Stateline.org said in 2020 about the TANF program nationally, not simply Mississippi: “TANF has devolved into a kind of candy store that many states are raiding to plug budget holes and pay for programs that have little to do with moving poor people into the workforce.”