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Newly released texts highlight corruption in Mississippi welfare scandal

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In 2020, the state of Mississippi arrested several officials linked to one of the biggest public corruption scandals in the state's history. Under former Governor Phil Bryant, more than 90 million in welfare funds were siphoned off for personal use, federal dollars intended to help low-income families instead being used for private investments. This week never-before-seen texts show that Bryant helped secure millions to help legendary NFL quarterback Brett Favre build a volleyball stadium. Bryant had previously denied directing welfare funds to the stadium project. Covering all this, Mississippi Today reporter Anna Wolfe, who joins us now to give us the latest. Hey, Anna.

ANNA WOLFE, BYLINE: Hey. Thanks so much for having me.

KELLY: So I know this case has so many twists and turns, but would you just lay out the basic landscape of where things stand and how these texts that have just come to light may change things?

WOLFE: Sure. So this scandal has been unfolding for over two years now, starting with six arrests back in 2020. And there's been kind of a trickle of information, you know, out for the last two years all along the way. And the main players, namely Governor Phil Bryant and Brett Favre, have sort of tried to make excuses for their involvement. So Brett Favre is clearly tied to this volleyball stadium that ended up receiving 5 million in welfare funds for the construction of. And, you know, he's clearly tied to it, but he says he didn't know the money came from welfare. And so what's significant about these texts is that they show sort of how these players were talking about this money at the time and how they were trying to get around federal regulations.

KELLY: For people who may be wondering why Brett Favre would be interested in building a volleyball stadium, I will mention this is a stadium at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he played ball and which his daughter attended and played volleyball, right?

WOLFE: That's right.

KELLY: I should also point out that Favre has denied wrongdoing. So has former Governor Bryant, and neither has been charged with anything, right?

WOLFE: That's right. Brett Favre is facing civil charges within a large civil case that the state is bringing against people who improperly received welfare money. But he's not facing any criminal charges.

KELLY: How does former Governor Bryant explain all this?

WOLFE: You know, he hasn't really been talking a lot. He gave us an interview back in April, when we uncovered some other text messages that connected him to another part of the welfare scheme. And he says that he didn't read his text messages carefully enough. So he was responding with, you know, positive responses - sounds good. You know, we'll make it work. And he says that he wasn't reading his messages carefully enough to appreciate what the people like Brett Favre were asking of him. But, you know, I think it's important to note that this is the kind of thing that happens every day. So, you know, it becomes not so much a story about a former NFL quarterback but this systemic problem of a welfare system that doesn't prioritize the end result of people leaving poverty.

KELLY: I'm glad you raised that because lost in all of these big names and the headlines is the fact that this was money that was supposed to help the poorest people in Mississippi. What has been the reaction from them? What does the misuse of funds mean for them, for the people who needed this money?

WOLFE: I would say that the main reaction is one of not being surprised by this. In the time period where this scandal occurred, 98% of people applying for cash welfare were being denied during this time. All the while, politicians and their friends are using the money in ways that they want to support their pet projects.

KELLY: Anna Wolfe from Mississippi Today - sounds like no shortage of things to keep you busy in the days to come.

WOLFE: That's right.

KELLY: Thanks so much for sharing your reporting with us.

WOLFE: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIL WAYNE SONG, "SHOOTER FT. ROBIN THICKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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