In 2016, the former governor of Mississippi appointed Davis to manage the state’s $1 billion public safety net. Mississippi Today obtained text exchanges that revealed the governor’s influence over the agency. The scandal auditors claim has cost the state taxpayers many millions. Officials accuse Davis of making the federal block grant program Temporary Assistance For Needy Families into a slush fund. This is most well-known for giving very poor families a meager monthly “welfare check”. The governor was responsible for Davis’s reluctance to provide cash assistance directly to the poor, which caused welfare rolls to plummet 75% and allowed Davis to spend the majority of the money in other ways. The agency’s original goal of helping people “find themselves” became obscured by misleading and bloated campaigns that claimed to be youth development, parenting, workforce training, and parenting. Failures at the welfare agency were caused by changes in policy, Bryant’s influence, Davis’ eagerness and complicity, a cult-like environment, and poor oversight by state and federal authorities. Between January 2016 and June 2019, Davis was the director of Mississippi Department of Human Services. He reported directly to Bryant. Auditors estimate that at least $77million in taxpayer funds for that agency was misappropriated. Millions of these have yet to be discovered. In the scandal, no wrongdoing has been claimed against the governor. The money could have been used to pay rent, electricity, child-care, and nine meals per day for a low-income family. It could also have provided $2600 in monthly transportation stipends and 9 meals per day for another 2,600 families. Eight times the number of people could have benefited from this, which is sufficient to fill the entire University of Southern Mississippi volleyball stadium. It was funded with welfare funds. Davis has pleaded not guilty to state fraud and state embezzlement charges. He also faces a $96million demand from the auditor for repayment. There is also a possible federal indictment, civil litigation, serious prison time, and the possibility of public ridicule. Bryant, however, has not been charged with Davis’s embezzlement and fraud charges. Bryant was forced out of Davis’s job by the state auditor. However, text messages shed light on Bryant’s involvement in Davis’s department. He spent welfare money and circumvented agency control that should have prevented favoritism when grant awards were made. Part 1: Phil Bryant wanted a payout because welfare funds were flowing to Brett Favre Temporary Aid for Needy Families, which Congress authorized under the 1996 welfare reform. States have wide discretion to spend the $86.5 million annual pot in Mississippi on programs that satisfy four purposes. Investigators from Shad White’s office, a Bryant appointee obtained the texts over two years ago via cellphone data dumps. But the truth of their story has been kept secret until now. Mississippi Today has reviewed hundreds upon pages of written communication. These are reproduced here as is, without any corrections. Bryant tried to negotiate a business deal with a company that had been paid $2 million in allegedly stolen welfare money, according to other reports Mississippi Today first reported. The money was requested by Brett Favre, the NFL legend. READ MORE: Brett Favre used his fame and favors in order to draw welfare money. But White’s 104-page report, which details in detail the misdeeds and contractors of welfare officials and contractors, does not mention the governor. White’s report is a detailed description of the misconduct and allegations in White’s report. White instead credited Bryant with being the whistleblower in relation to the welfare scandal. White has not spoken out about the audit because of a gag order in a criminal case. He stated that he believed it was the duty of the welfare director to reject improper requests from the governor and not the governor’s responsibility for knowing agency spending regulations. John Davis, 54, has spent his entire career with the Mississippi Department of Human Services. He started as a low-ranking social worker in Brookhaven’s county DHS office. He was promoted to the state office in 2005 and served as the program’s direct supervisor. MDHS oversees approximately $1 billion worth of federal safety net funds in a typical year. It contracts for $150 million to private non-profits and other organizations. The TANF program was not known for its large purchases but for serious underspending before Davis became director. The agency had accumulated approximately $40 million in extra TANF funds from previous years. Davis was the perfect director to see what would happen next. Auditors found that a lot of welfare fraud was committed at the nonprofit level, as Davis’ department had few controls. The alleged fraud involved TANF money that was funneled by the state through a program Bryant called Families First for Mississippi. Audit reports portray Davis as a dictator, as someone who intimidated people by his unilateral control of funding and his ability fire staff at will. This is a change that was made to the department in his first year as director. Davis was not the only employee of MDHS who had control over its finances and accounting. He relied on skilled attorneys to provide legal opinions and assistance issuing subgrants. They were able to write grants that fit funding requirements and make expenditures without raising red flags in audits. He also indicated that Davis was tired of the constant requests for money and the heavy burden of keeping the purse strings open. He once said, “I try to avoid him most of the time cause he’s always asking for money.” This was a reference to Paul Lacoste (subgrantee) who ran a boot camp-style fitness class that was funded by welfare and which was often free to lawmakers and staffers. Davis couldn’t ignore the governor so he played the role of a good boy. Gov. Bryant and Deborah Bryant sometimes slapped Davis with language that appeared more family-oriented than professional. Eight months into Davis’ term, Bryant’s wife wrote that Bryant had received assurances from the governor of his love and support. The unmarried, lifelong bureaucrat in government – a self-described “simple country boy”, in his late 40s, was balding and doughy – seemed to enjoy the praise. Davis showed his love for Bryant, a charismatic, popular politician who wore expensive suits and custom cowboy boots. In 2018, after Mississippi’s proposal to fund a project to support a trucking company with food stamps was rejected by the federal human service office, Davis sent an email asking for “URGENT ASSISTANCE” in order to save it. He wrote, “My Governor Phil Bryant has supported this program.” He concluded his message by saying, “My Governor, Phil Bryant has promoted this program.” Bryant also asked Davis for help in presenting an award to a company “who has partnered with Families First,” emails show. Bryant eventually presented the award to the trucking company. Phil Bryant and Davis shared an evangelical energy. They used God and Christianity to communicate their messages and turned government speeches into sermons. The law was passed by the governor and the bureaucrat of the agency to protect “sincerely held” religious beliefs. They believed that marriage should be between one man, one woman and that no one should have sex with anyone outside of such unions. Bryant and Davis enjoyed being with celebrities. The governor showed his affection for country music stars, reality TV stars, and star athletes, such as Favre, who is a prominent player in the welfare audit. He took selfies with Jennifer Garner, an actress who represents an international humanitarian non-profit that received millions of TANF funds from Bryant’s welfare agency. Today, Jennifer Garner met with him in D.C. to discuss early education in Mississippi and her “Early Steps to School Success” initiative. pic.twitter.com/1SvjL7zgTP Davis, meanwhile, had become close to the family of famous retired WWE wrestler Ted DiBiase Sr., known as the “Million Dollar Man” – who was eager to promote the agency’s self-help principles through evangelism. The initial investigation revealed that the larger welfare scandal was triggered by the perks Davis gave to his son, Brett DiBiase. He allegedly sent him to rehab under a false $48,000 contract. Brett DiBiase was convicted of a crime in the welfare program in 2020. Ted DiBiase Jr. is the other son and the subject of a federal civil investigation. This is related to his work for the department. Bryant was known to have had a connection with the wrestlers. However, Davis formed close relationships with the boys while working in a government office that incorporated family and work. Ted DiBiase Sr. is a classic WWE villain who manipulates his opponents using his wealth since 1987. This person is called a “heel” in scripted performance wrestling. He also started a Christian ministry through which he receives paid to speak at churches. He still appears in skits for the program, even though he quit wrestling in the 1990s.
The WWE’s portrayal of over-the-top stories and staged events as real is what makes it stand out. In an effort to blur the lines between reality and fiction, these actors act in their own characters outside of the ring. Davis and Teddy DiBiase shared Christian devotionals, traveled together and worked out at the gym. Davis often texted his older brother “I love you” and the welfare director flew across country to visit Brett DiBiase. He discussed his treatment options, and called him the “son that I never had.” They also shared late-night phone conversations, according to phone records. The welfare department hired the DiBiases and their ministry called Heart of David for various “soft service” such as creating a phone app that could reach troubled teens and sending them Bible verses. Incentives were offered to kids for using the app, such as personalized videos from Ted DiBiase Sr. and the governor. The app was never implemented. According to Mississippi Today’s records requests, their programs generally produced few results, and they didn’t report any outcomes to state. In a span of approximately two years, the DiBiases received $5 million from the welfare program. The state auditor demanded $3.9 million back. This is because they failed to fulfill their contracts. The wrestlers’ attorneys declined to comment. Bryant was invited by the DiBiases and his wife to attend the premiere of a documentary Teddy DiBiase had made about his father. The photo backdrop for the photo op featured both the logos of Families First Mississippi and Heart of David. Teddy DiBiase was also on the advisory board for Deborah Bryant’s Healthy Teens Rallies initiative. He also gave motivational speeches. Investigators have been examining Davis’s closeness to the younger DiBiases (39 and 34 respectively) but Ted DiBiase Sr. believes Bryant was responsible for elevating the wrestlers in the state’s welfare program. DiBiase Sr. claimed that his ministry was selected by the governor to represent his faith-based initiative in Mississippi. Bryant countered this claim, saying that the people and organizations around his administration exaggerated their involvement for clout. Mississippi Today obtained a draft proposal that was attached to agency emails. It describes Bryant’s plan to include elements of faith in Families First for Mississippi. The May 2018 document states that Phil Bryant, Mississippi Governor, has identified the need for Mississippi to grow the capacity of many faith groups locally and has created a faith-based initiative with an individual chosen to work with local communities. “Families First for Mississippi” will align its efforts to the Governor’s plan, and will closely work with the Governor’s faith-based leadership team. While welfare money can be used for programs run by faith-based institutions but the federal government prohibits it from using the money for religious activities like worship. Video and social media posts show that the DiBiases only conducted a four-day camp called “Ignite Sports Camp” which had the explicit goal of reaching young men for Jesus Christ. The camp was in existence for many years before the DiBiase ministry named it. Past summers’ videos show camp participants singing worship music. The State Auditor’s Office reported that Families First, an MDHS subgrantee, had violated federal regulations by paying to stage concert performances starring Jason Crabb. Crabb’s children’s book on the Ten Commandments was also purchased in 2018 by Crabb. Independent auditors confirmed that the book purchase was evidence of abuse and waste. Emails reveal that Deborah Bryant requested a lunch meeting with Crabb and welfare officials to discuss her request for a book purchase. This was in February 2019. Next month, Jason Crabb’s father, Gerald Crabb (also a Christian musician/ministry founder) sent Davis a text thanking him for all he did for him. Gerald Crabb was informed by the welfare director of his plans to include “inner-city kids” in their project. Davis wrote, “You should listen to them sing.” Davis stated that he had envisioned them performing a concert series with children as the “opening act”. He also said that the governor’s wife was supportive of the idea. In March 2019, Davis sent Gerald Crabb a text message saying that he had had lunch with the Governor of Texas and First Lady. “They are onboard.” In March 2019, Davis texted Gerald Crabb, “We had lunch with the Governor and First Lady.” It is known as a legal slush funds, where officials can justify seemingly absurd purchases by claiming they are fulfilling vague purposes under federal law. However, the perception of Mississippi’s spending is not entirely accurate according to independent auditors and state officials. According to the accountants, most of the misspend violated federal law because the purchases didn’t serve the needy (an apparently overlooked requirement in TANF guidelines) or they didn’t comply with federal grant regulations governing conflicts and unfair grant-awarding. Nisha Patel, former director of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Family Assistance, said that Congress did not have the authority to regulate TANF because of its structure. The federal government must have access to and provide detailed information about the lives of welfare recipients, in order to determine their household resources and track their work. The federal agency doesn’t have any data about how states spend the remaining money, or the private organizations that it awards the funds to. The federal agency only requires states to report their expenses in vague categories to the federal government. They are not required to submit any supporting documentation such as invoices or subgrants. Patel stated that data can only be as accurate as the state’s report. If states don’t accurately record their spending, there’s no way for the federal government to verify it. There’s one entity that is supposed to hold Mississippi’s welfare agency responsible. The Office of the State Auditor inspects all state agencies that receive federal funding each year for the federal government. The federal government uses this as its primary method of holding the states accountable for their spending. Bryant was the state auditor until 2007, when Congress created the TANF program and overhauled welfare. Bryant was there from 1996. Bryant was required to audit the TANF program’s performance in 2005 by a new state law. This included the actual outcomes of those who were supposed to receive it, as well as the expenditures of subgrantees. The new requirement was contingent on Bryant having the funds necessary to perform the audit. The law was then allowed to expire by the Legislature. Bryant’s TANF audit was not conducted by the office. The 2005 law was authored by former chair of the health-and-human services committee Rep. Steve Holland (D-Plantersville). Holland, who has been a champion for public programs for the sick and the poor, realized that the state relied on “quote unquote politically faith” that the welfare agency would use these funds wisely. Holland voted against the move of the department to the governor’s offices in the 1990s. He said that this would reduce accountability and give too much power over one politician. His concerns were ignored by his colleagues. Holland claimed that he raised concerns about MDHS spending near the end Bryant’s administration and “even bombarded the director at one time after having been told probably ten times I could not view him.” Holland then said to Holland, “Director, this is going to be like walking from hell into Texas. It’s going to bust open. Holland stated that there was too much hanky-panky and not enough accountability. “And he just said, “I’ve got this under control, Mr. Chairman.” And I replied, “I don’t believe you do, but I sure hope you do.” The scandal involving welfare was largely blamed on Davis and his subgrantees by Auditor White, even though Davis’ department adheres to the governor’s plans. While some state agencies have boards that oversee their operations, others, such as MDHS, report directly to the top state official. Nancy New, the founder of the nonprofit, was a key figure in the scandal. White wrote letters demanding repayment from all members of her Mississippi Community Education Center board members. Civil court could hold New responsible. However, such demands were not made in the case involving the governor’s offices, which oversees MDHS. In October, the auditor informed Mississippi Today that it was not the governor’s responsibility to determine how TANF funds are spent. White posed a hypothetical scenario: A governor meets with his director of human services and asks the department to use welfare funds for building a community garden. This is an illegal purchase under TANF regulations. White stated that it was the responsibility of the director to deny the request and explain why the money could not be used. White asked the reverse question: “Is it the Governor’s responsibility in the hypothetical that I just created to know all about TANF regs?” White asked, “Is it the governor’s responsibility in that hypothetical that I just set up to know all the TANF regs?” The answer was no. It would be impossible.” Davis told the governor, at least temporarily, that he did not believe it was possible to end Davis’s administration in 2019. Bryant was seeking funding to fund a clinic for children’s development. Davis informed the governor via email that Davis’ attorneys had determined that it would be against federal regulations to use TANF funds or other MDHS funds towards the program. “Thanks John. Please let me know if you need funding. Bryant replied, “We always want to comply with the rules.” Davis “found a way” to finance the organization, he said to the governor in a text one week later. Bryant replied, “Perhaps he did,” when Mississippi Today asked him about this exchange. According to emails obtained by Mississippi Today, the director had not even seen the application before making the decision. According to White’s lead auditor, the conversation about whether a program is suitable for funding purposes and who has responsibility to know these rules ignores another problem. A governor or agency director cannot decide unilaterally which organizations will receive grant money. According to Stephanie Palmertree, director of the auditor’s compliance and finance division, “A director cannot unilaterally send money to a subgrantee because of the pre-award conditions required in Uniform Grant Guidance,” Palmertree said to Mississippi Today via email. White stated to Mississippi Today that he hadn’t seen any evidence Bryant directed Davis to pay specific vendors. Yet, Bryant’s ability to “find” funding options for MDHS — and all it took to ask Davis to do this — is clearly stated in the written communications that the auditor’s office has possessed for over two years. Bryant evaded questions about whether Bryant’s requests had put pressure on Davis for him to grant his wishes. Bryant stated, “I wouldn’t pick organizations to say, ‘fund that one’, ‘fund that one’, ‘fund the one’, etc.” “I believe a question from myself asking, ‘Can you fund these people?’ is just that. Policy advocates don’t see it that way. Carol Burnett, the founder of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Institute, stated that “I have been saying all along, that all those TANF subsidy subgrants that were suspect – Nancy New and all of them – it is the governor who was behind the curtain.” “That’s what I think.” Burnett is educated. She was a division director at the Mississippi Department of Human Services in 2000 and has direct knowledge of how the agency works. Burnett stated that TANF is a large pot of money, and the governor has complete control. “The governor had to be involved in those decisions.” Mississippi Today has asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to deny several requests to interview them. It also declined to discuss the general policies and controls of the program. The agency has stated in written statements that it is waiting for the Office of the Inspector General to complete its investigation before it imposes penalties on the state for the misappropriation. Mississippi Today was informed by the agency that Mississippi will have in 2020 to repay the misappropriated funds using its state dollars and not future TANF money. Officials at the local FBI office refused to confirm whether their investigation is still ongoing. Davis informed Bryant on June 19, 2019 that he would be appearing in Washington to testify about the state’s public safety net and food assistance programs. Bryant was told by the welfare director that Mississippi’s House Agriculture Committee members “like what Mississippi does” and asked about “what we have achieved so far.” Bryant replied via text, “Proud to do the job you are doing.” On the second row, Nancy New and Teddy DiBiase were behind Davis, who was a conservative voice on a panel before Congress. Mississippi had just removed a policy that increased eligibility for food benefits. This had the effect of taking people off the program. Davis claimed that the state was working to lift people out of poverty through other means. Davis gave one example: “Law of 16”, the self-help courses Teddy DiBiase Jr., which were taught to MDHS employees and other public agencies. These motivational talks were delivered by the wrestler who was paid millions of dollars in welfare funds. Davis used little more than buzzwords to describe Mississippi’s multigenerational, family-centered approach. He also praised the concept of helping individuals “find true self sufficiency”. Davis was positioning Mississippi’s safety network department as a national leader. On June 21, Davis received a text message from the governor when he returned to Mississippi. Bryant asked Davis if he and his agency employees had stayed in Trump Plaza during their trip, and who paid for them. Families First used welfare funds often to cover travel expenses. They weren’t included in MDHS spending reports. Texts show that Davis’ secretary kept the credit card of the New nonprofit, which she could use to book hotel rooms and flights. Davis was informed by his colleague that MDHS paid for the rooms. Davis later told Bryant that he had paid for the rooms from his own pocket. Bryant wrote, “Wow that is an expensive place. “Yes sir. “Yes sir. I am single with no children. Davis stated that Davis was on his bucket list. Bryant told Davis then to visit his office. Bryant had reportedly told White the initial tip about mispending the day before. An examination report states that investigators from White’s auditor office administered a polygraph test to Davis and asked him if he had received kickbacks from DiBiases. Davis abruptly resigned from MDHS within two weeks. After Davis had left office, and the auditor’s investigation was already underway, Davis sent another text to the governor. Davis wrote, “I was asked by the regional office at Atlanta to help some states model their programs after Mississippi.” The governor was eager to grant the blessing of this disgraced ex-bureaucrat. Bryant replied, “That sounds great.”