/Governing by text Phil Bryant’s hidden hand picked welfare winners

Governing by text Phil Bryant’s hidden hand picked welfare winners

Davis answered his boss one time, “Yes sir, we can definitely help.” You can tell them that I will reach out to them, or you can just go ahead. “I will do it today.” These exchanges revealed a wider scandal that started after Davis used his agency’s ineffective bid process for federal block grant funding that had virtually no federal oversight. His leadership saw the agency make upfront payments of multimillions to two private non-profits, Mississippi Community Education Center, and Family Resource Center in North Mississippi to operate a program called Families First for Mississippi. While Davis had full control of Families First’s operations, he also treated the public agency and the private nonprofits as one. They weren’t one and the same, because the spending of nonprofits was hidden from the public. This created a black hole that concealed a host of ethical and legal issues. State auditors caught up to them. Davis and five other people pleaded guilty to criminal charges, while the state tries to recover improper payments. Bryant has not been accused of any wrongdoing by officials in this case. Mississippi Today examined communication between Bryant, Davis and other welfare officials during the months preceding the state auditor’s welfare investigation in order to understand the closed-door decisions behind public spending. Some of these text messages have been reproduced here as is without any corrections. This story examines two instances of Bryant asking Davis (his appointee) if he could finance a particular organization without going through normal channels. Bryant asked Davis twice if he could help. Davis replied within minutes to Bryant’s request in one case. He assured the governor that he would help fund Willowood Developmental Center. This non-profit serves children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Bryant had already granted Willowood a separate child-care grant when he sent Davis the Families First request. Even though Willowood did not receive additional MDHS funding, Davis’ response shows Bryant’s complicity in the preferential grant-award process and his agency’s cavalier attitude. Bryant said to Mississippi Today, “If it’s wrong for Willowood or those poor children out there to help, then I will need to say that I was wrong, although I don’t believe I was.” In another case, Davis initially informed the governor that it would be against federal regulations to allow his agency to finance the T.K. Martin Center for Technology and Disability, Mississippi State University. Davis was able to grant the center a grant. “Perhaps he did,” Bryant said. “And I hope it wasn’t illegal and ethical or moral. I can recall people calling Mississippi State and saying that this was a great program for poor children, and we’re going lose it. Families First for Mississippi was the program that linked both programs to the now-defunct program. It attached its name and promised resources to the poor communities. The initiative was a cover for widespread misappropriation of a federal grant called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, (TANF) that was intended to assist the state’s most vulnerable residents. Independent accountants from Mississippi Today found that between 70% to 86% of purchases made by the two Families First non-profits were in violation of federal rules, including welfare regulations. These regulations are some of the most lax guidelines for federal grants. Families First was a term that Mississippi used to refer to the services it provided through its TANF funds for more than 20 years. After Congress overhauled the welfare program in the 1990s, “Families First” grants were awarded to small state organizations. These grants allowed them to provide parenting and anger management classes as well as after-school programs, tutoring and job-preparation activities. These entities may have received grants directly from the state agency, or subcontracts from MDHS subgrantees. This made them “third-tier recipients” according to auditors. The state used the welfare money and the Families First program in Mississippi to supplement existing programs and private organizations that didn’t directly address poverty. For example, services for children with disabilities, which are often lacking in Mississippi’s public schools, which is notoriously underfunded. The state can spend welfare money to not only help those in poverty but also to prevent others from becoming poor. The money should be distributed as part a coherent plan to combat poverty in the state, or through a competition to boost the most promising programs. Records show that the agency granted grants often at Davis’ discretion, sometimes at the suggestion of political leaders. Davis claimed Bryant told him to consolidate TANF grants and make them manageable. This led to large contracts with two non-profits. Davis claimed Bryant told him to outsource this area of the agency, as well as child support enforcement. T.K. The T.K. Martin Center was established in 1997. It is named after a former MSU vice president. In 2017, a Family First grant was awarded to fund a program that helps children learn to read. It was known as the IGNITE Dyslexia Clinic. The charity, Willowood, which is a nearly $50 million-a-year charity, was funded primarily through government grants. It was run by a board consisting of well-known community members. T.K. and Willowood were both recipients of Families First funding. Both the Martin programs overlapped with a federal grant that auditors and investigators have not yet examined as thoroughly as TANF: The Child Care Development Fund (CCDF). MDHS stopped giving Families First grants in 2015 and 2019 to Willowood, instead funding the center with a CCDF grant. The nonprofit then used the subgrant to run its daycare center. CCDF was also a CCDF option to T.K. when the TANF program was in turmoil during the months that Davis was forced to retire. Martin. Martin. Child care advocates complained in 2018 that the agency hadn’t approved a new voucher for five years. Bryant was informed by Davis that his agency could not legally finance T.K. Emails show that Martin, the welfare director, visited Mississippi State University to inspect the facilities and talk about funding with Mark Keenum, college president. According to texts, they reached a deal that day. Nancy New, the founder of Families First, was also involved in both programs. She was one of the key figures in the welfare scam and has pleaded not guilty. When welfare officials visited T.K., New was with them. According to an email itinerary, Martin was visited in April 2019. New was also present at a luncheon at Willowood, where he was accompanied by “special guest Brett Favre,” according to an emailed itinerary. This calendar entry is from October 2018. According to Mississippi Today, Willowood’s director said that Favre’s cousin was on the board of the organization and helped arrange for Favre to speak at Willowood’s fundraiser. Favre was a prominent figure in the welfare scandal. The auditor revealed that New’s nonprofit had given Favre $1 million in welfare funds. He also paid Favre to speak at events that he wasn’t attending. Curtis Alford (Willowwood’s executive director) stated that Favre was not paid for his appearance. Davis signed a $182275 CCDF subgrant to Willowood “to encourage self-sufficiency and promote the optimal development of kids” a few months later. This language is more in line with the purposes of TANF. Calendar entries reveal that the News had planned to visit Willowood a week later. Independent accountants discovered that the Family Resource Center of North Mississippi had illegally paid for the dyslexia program at T.K. Martin Center in 2017-2018 Auditors found that Martin Center misused over $11.5 million of federal grant dollars. This includes $717,000 it incorrectly paid to Mississippi State University. This included the grant that was awarded to T.K. Martin. The north Mississippi nonprofit has not been charged with criminal offenses. The Family Resource Center was facing budget cuts and T.K. grant issues in the spring 2019. Martin’s contract had expired and Davis received numerous messages. Texts show that he received concerns from First Lady Deborah Bryant and U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith about the reading program. Also, the head of Republican Party in Starkville, where Mississippi State University is situated, also sent messages to him. Deborah Bryant sent an email to her husband stating that “Things such as this disturb me.” She was referring to the story about a mother whose 6-year old daughter was in danger of losing the life-changing clinic services. Bryant, a dyslexic child, sent Davis his email. He wrote, “Anyway we could help?” from his personal email account. Davis denied that he could. Davis told the governor that funding the center would violate federal regulations. This was despite the fact that Families First had indirectly funded it by MDHS. Bryant was informed by Davis in an April 17, 2019, email that Davis had told him that his attorneys had reviewed the scope and concluded that it was all clinically based diagnosis. “They informed me that they believe it cannot be funded using TANF or other MDHS funds.” The footnote in the forensic auditor referred to this email but did not mention Gov. Bryant. Auditors found that TANF money was not allowed to be used at T.K. Martin, as the program didn’t target needy families. The center received funding for child care, but the audit does not acknowledge this. “Thanks John,” Gov. Bryant replied. Bryant replied, “Let’s see if I can help you find funding. We want to keep the rules in mind.” On the same day, the Columbus Dispatch published a story about concerns that MSU may be closing T.K. Martin contained vague statements from university officials stating that a new funding plan was being developed. Davis was also in discussions behind closed doors. Welfare officials visited campus to discuss the program a week later. Davis was able to find a funding solution with the assistance of Jacob Black, a deputy director who attended the April 24, tour. Davis sent Bryant a text the day before, saying that he had “FOUND AN WAY TO FUND T.K.” Martin Center, you ask me about.” Later that same day, Black sent Davis a text, suggesting they add T.K. Martin was included in the state’s application for federal preschool funding renewal, which was scheduled to open in a few weeks. The federal agency rejected Mississippi’s request and the state did not receive that funding. “I believe we can bridge that gap until next spring’s funding begins. Black replied, “I will make it happen.” Davis thanked Black for being “always thinking ahead.” Black replied, “I am just trying to keep up with my instructor.” Davis leaned on Black, an attorney, for legal advice and to ensure that the agency was following the law. They communicated well, indicating that Black was able to find creative funding solutions. Davis once asked Black via text if he could raise $2.5 million to support New’s nonprofit. Black agreed. Black wrote, “Let’s figure out how we can do it without creating an auditor finding.” Davis and Black appeared to be friends; Black once said to his deputy that the governor thought a lot of him. But Black wasn’t quite as loyal to Davis. According to an ex-agent spokesperson, Black was among the employees who provided information to Phil Bryant about Davis’ alleged mispending in June 2019. According to the auditor, Bryant alerted Shad White, the State Auditor, which prompted the investigation that revealed rampant mispending and possible theft. Officials are not making public the details of the tip, as it is an exempt investigation record. Black, who was appointed interim director in 2020 and served as Davis’s top official until his ouster, remained at the agency for approximately a month. Tate Reeves succeeded him and was replaced by Bob Anderson, a former prosecutor. Black soon left MDHS to become a Medicaid staff attorney. Davis informed Gov. Bryant gave the funding to T.K. Martin was a done deal even though Bryant didn’t have a “scope-of-work” document from the center, and the agency wouldn’t officially ink it for nearly three months. Bryant was texted by Davis on April 26: “They are being funding.” “…They sent a memo to TK Martin telling them everything was fine… I told him that was all I needed. “So, we are slick.” Officials did not make the announcement – even in a news release about T.K. Martin published weeks later that the welfare agency provided the temporary solution. Sid Salter, spokesperson for Mississippi State, did not return multiple phone calls regarding this story. However, he said to Mississippi Today via email that his assertions about ‘closed doors’ or ‘workarounds do not reflect the spirit or the letter of what occurred at the meeting with Davis. Black signed an official MDHS subgrant arrangement with T.K. in July that year, just days after Davis’s investigation began. Martin for $149 978. The grant was awarded by MDHS after Davis left office. It came from the child care fund, not TANF. Forensic auditors have not looked into this expenditure. The subgrant file contains a non-solicitation grants sheet. This is where officials can explain why they don’t bid on funds. There is a box on the document asking agency officers to explain in detail why they are not soliciting bids, quotes or proposals to receive an award of services. The box is empty. Salter stated that “any assertion that MSU didn’t apply properly for the MDHS grant” was simply false. T.K. Martin no longer receives funding from MDHS. However, a university representative stated that the program is still on solid feet. “MSU is proud to the T.K. Salter, via email, stated that MSU is proud of the T.K. Last year, Gov. T.K. Martin $242,000 from the Governor’s Emergency Education Response(GEER) pandemic relief fund for IGNITE, its dyslexia clinic and reading clinic. IGNITE is a relatively new program. It was supported in 2017 by an allegedly illegal Family Resource Center grant, the Families First grant. Curiously, the clinic shares the same name, Ignite with other welfare-funded programs that are run by former WWE wrestlers. Bryant’s welfare-funded, “faith-based” initiative. Bryant made a similar intervene for Willowood. Bryant is the Jackson center that offers services to children with special needs and provides day care centers that often take in kids under state custody. Between 2000 and 2010, MDHS gave Willowood an average annual Families First grant of $130,000. This allowed the center to operate fatherhood programs or programs at Mississippi’s youth jail. In recent years, Willowood had not received this funding and stopped providing these services. Alford, Willowood’s director, said that he started discussing the changes in Mississippi’s welfare program around 2018. He asked other community leaders: “How can you get back into Families First?” “They said that Nancy New controls a lot money now. “I reached out and asked her for help to get into the money loop.” However, she never responded. Bryant received a March 2019 letter from David Marsh, a Willowood board member. This was just a few months prior to the auditor’s investigation. Davis then abruptly retired. Marsh, the owner of a local building company, wrote that he had been Willowood’s friend for many years and that he couldn’t express enough gratitude for his support. “We humbly request that Families First reinstate $150,000.00 that Willowood so desperately needs.” Marsh, who owns Benchmark Construction, said that his company had donated $6,200 over the years to Bryant’s political campaigns. Marsh also told Mississippi Today that he knew Gov. Bryant for decades. Marsh claimed Bryant assisted Willowood in fundraising when he was the state auditor. Marsh stated that Marsh thought it would be beneficial for Bryant to help Willowood if he was aware of Willowood’s need. “… I reached out to him simply because I knew him well and wanted to know if there was a way to get the (Families First grant). back. Bryant sent Davis a photo of the letter with the message “Anyway we could help these guys?” Davis agreed. He replied, “You can tell them that I will be reaching out for them.” “I will do so today.” Bryant replied, even though the Families First program was dissolved before Willowood received another grant. However, the exchange sheds light on Bryant’s role in channeling funds, not only at the state agency level but also through the privatized Families First program managed by Nancy New. Auditors accuse Davis of being ineptly involved in New’s funding decisions. This demonstrates his favoritism over the nonprofit. Bryant seemed to have the power in Willowood’s case. Alford claimed that Marsh had called him after Marsh sent the letter. Alford stated that Marsh sent the letter and that Nancy New called him within a few days. “Nancy New said that she understood that the governor said that they were supposed to give money to you, but she got arrested shortly thereafter. I assume that she made plans to fund me, and I haven’t heard from her since then.”