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Phil Bryant sends defamation notice to...

Phil Bryant sends defamation notice to Mississippi Today for “false and libelous” accusations

By: Frank Corder - July 24, 2023

(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis - Copyright 2011 AP. All rights reserved.)

Former Gov. Phil Bryant is demanding a retraction, correction and apology for statements made by Mississippi Today that claimed Bryant “misused and squandered” $77 million in TANF funds and that he steered those funds to family and friends. The move comes after CEO Mary Margaret White was forced to issue an apology for separately claiming Bryant “embezzled” funds.

Former Gov. Phil Bryant’s attorney, Billy Quinn, sent a letter to Mississippi Today CEO Mary Margaret White on Monday, claiming that the non-profit media outlet defamed Bryant in publications made on August 11, 2022, and May 8, 2023.

Mary Margaret White (Photo from Mississippi Today bio)

Bryant sent a similar letter to Mississippi Today in May after it was discovered that White had claimed at a conference hosted by the Knight Foundation that their newsroom “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.”

Days later, White issued a statement saying she misspoke, and acknowledging her remark was “inappropriate, and I sincerely apologize.”

In Monday’s letter, Bryant demands that Mississippi Today publicly apologize for making what the letter characterizes as false and libelous accusations in the two referenced articles.

Statements Called into Question

A Mississippi Today article published on August 11, 2022, titled “Reporting with impact: 2022 mid-year report contained a link to Mississippi Today’s 2022 Impact Report which noted the following:

Anna Wolfe, our poverty and investigative reporter, began publishing her investigative series “The Backchannel”, which 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’s attorney says the accusation is false and libelous, adding that the former Governor “did not misuse and squander at least $77 million in federal funds, and Wolfe’s investigative series did not reveal that he did.”

“Mississippi Today’s accusation that Bryant misused and squandered at least $77 million of federal funds injures Bryant’s reputation; it exposes him to ‘public hatred, contempt or ridicule;’ it ‘degrade[s] him in society;’ and it ‘lessen[s] him in public esteem or lower[s] him in the confidence of the community,'” writes Quinn, specifically referencing case law.

The other statement Bryant’s attorney calls into question for defamation is an article published on May 8, 2023, titled “Anna Wolfe and Mississippi Today win Pulitzer Prize for ‘The Backchannel’ investigation.” It contains the following claim:

The investigation, published in a multi-part series in 2022, revealed for the first time how former Gov. Phil Bryant used his office to steer the spending of millions of federal welfare dollars money intended to help the state’s poorest residents to benefit his family and friends, including NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre

Quinn also calls this statement false and libelous, saying that Bryant “did not use his office to steer the spending of millions of federal welfare dollars to benefit his family and friends, and Wolfe’s investigative series did not reveal that he did.”

“Mississippi Today’s accusation that Bryant steered the spending of millions of federal welfare dollars to benefit his family and friends injures Bryant’s reputation; it exposes him to public hatred, contempt, and ridicule; it degrades him in society; and it lessens him in public esteem and lowers him in the confidence of the community,” Quinn writes.

What’s Next?

According to the state’s tort laws, public officials and public figures must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant acted with “actual malice.” Bryant’s attorney says that standard is met because Mississippi Today knew the accusations were false when it made them.

“The libelous statements at issue misstate the facts and misconstrue the truth. Moreover, they are integral to a malicious and concerted effort within Mississippi Today to harm former-Governor Bryant with a steady stream of outright lies, baseless speculation, and irresponsible innuendo,” Quinn writes to the Mississippi Today CEO.

Under Mississippi law, just like in the prior incident from May 2023, Bryant was required to send the letter to Mississippi Today before he could file suit. Mississippi Today now has ten days to evaluate the claims in the letter and issue an apology and correction should they choose to do so.

About the Author(s)
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Frank Corder

Frank Corder is a native of Pascagoula. For nearly two decades, he has reported and offered analysis on government, public policy, business and matters of faith. Frank’s interviews, articles, and columns have been shared throughout Mississippi as well as in national publications. He is a frequent guest on radio and television, providing insight and commentary on the inner workings of the Magnolia State. Frank has served his community in both elected and appointed public office, hosted his own local radio and television programs, and managed private businesses all while being an engaged husband and father. Email Frank: