Exclusive: Shad White addresses biggest criticisms toward his handling of state’s largest welfare scandal
JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Seventy-seven million in federal welfare funds never made it to those who truly needed it.
Those dollars instead got funneled to a school, a volleyball stadium, a former pro wrestler and a NFL legend, among others.
When people talk about the scandal today, they mention the people who still have yet to be charged: former Gov. Phil Bryant and football great Brett Favre.
“I think the frustration that’s coming from those folks, is this belief that Shad is auditor/investigator plus prosecutor plus judge plus jury plus executioner, you know, and they think that if I’m not the one who is throwing somebody in jail and telling them, ‘you’re gonna stay there for 20 years,’ that I haven’t done my job. That’s not my job,” State Auditor Shad White said.
White addressed much of the criticism he’s gotten since his office’s investigation revealed a massive embezzlement scheme involving federal welfare dollars.
“My face has been at the front of a lot of the news articles involving the case. And so people sort of think, well, if it’s going slow, it must be his fault. That’s not the case. It’s going slow because we’ve done our jobs and have handed the case over to [federal investigators] who now need to do their jobs,” White said.
White said the state investigation began in summer of 2019, when then-Gov. Bryant called him with a tip involving the state’s Department of Human Services.
“It looked like there might be a kickback going from a vendor that was serving [the Department of Human Services], and that was Brett Dibiase, his company, to John Davis, who is the head of DHS,” White said.
That investigation, which would last eight months, led to criminal indictments against six people.
It laid out a plan carried out by Davis to funnel money to nonprofit executive director Nancy New and her family, the New Summit School she ran, three former wrestlers and two former NFL athletes.
Money meant for the poorest Mississippians instead padded their bank accounts.
“What we saw, at that juncture, talking about the end of 2019, beginning of 2020 was six folks who had worked together in different ways to defraud the taxpayers of money. We were doing a more comprehensive audit at the same time. So we saw, you know, morsels of information that suggested, ‘Well, you know, it’s weird that they also spent money donating to a charity here in town, what’s that about?’” White said. “But we needed more time to figure out the full scope of what was happening.”
Former U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst would later accuse White’s office of keeping federal authorities in the dark, but White defends waiting months after the auditor’s office started piecing everything together to bring in the FBI.
“If I had not taken this case to the local DA, millions of additional dollars would have flowed out the door to people who ultimately pled guilty to fraud,” White said.
The timeline of the auditor’s investigation shows what they were up against.
Months after Bryant’s tip came to the auditor’s office in 2019, White said they determined federal welfare dollars were specifically involved.
In December of that year, DHS issued a letter of intent to give another multimillion dollar grant to Nancy New’s nonprofit, the Mississippi Community Education Center.
That grant never got delivered because indictments came down two months later against the six initially involved.
“We have competent investigators here, they have a job, we have constitutional authority here. So we don’t open up a case file and say ‘looks like there’s a kickback between a vendor and a supervisor, quick, somebody call the FBI,’” White said. “You know, that’s just not how we operate here. We do our jobs here. So, we started doing our jobs. And when we realized, OK, this is a case that one, we know we can prove, based on our expertise in the office, so let’s go ahead, let’s put a stop to the flow of funds.”
White said he felt the best way to do that was to focus on the fraud he could prove now, then hand off the case to the most capable hands to work quickly and effectively to prosecute it: the Hinds County District Attorney’s Office.
“One, we know that [DA Jody Owens] can move faster, and he can cut off the flow of funds. We’re not going to have to sit and wait for the federal authorities to investigate this and watch more money go out the door,” White said. “Two, people are going to understand that Owens, who’s an elected Democrat, is not going to take it easy on somebody because they’re a Republican.”
Those optics, White said, were important.
After all, the case involved multiple prominent high-profile Republicans.
“One of my early concerns was, will people think, ‘Oh, well, Shad White, who’s Republican handed this case over to Mike Hurst, the U.S. Attorney, who’s also Republican, and will they together collude to bury whatever needs to happen in this case?’” White said.
Some of that criticism still gets lobbed at the state auditor because of the alleged role of another prominent Republican in the scandal: former Gov. Bryant.
Bryant, who appointed White to serve as auditor initially, also became the impetus for investigating what would become the state’s largest public welfare scandal.
White has publicly called him the whistleblower, a title he still stands behind today.
“If I’m asking you who brought information about the case to the State Auditor’s Office, what’s the answer? There’s only one answer. And so, I can either lie and not say the truth, or I can say the truth and what the actual answer is,” White said.
That doesn’t absolve Bryant of the possibility of being charged in the future, though.
“Anytime we take information, we use it to go out and build an investigation, but we’re not taking it as God’s honest truth. And we’re also not taking it as the full truth, we’re just going to do our jobs,” White said. “We’re using this as an entree to get into the facts, basically.”
White said it’s not something his office considered because they didn’t know the extent of Bryant’s involvement at the time.
The biggest indicator of the former governor’s role: text messages first made public by Mississippi Today that appear to show Bryant had an active role in steering former DHS head John Davis to award welfare grants to vendors Bryant preferred.
Some of those communications would reveal NFL legend Brett Favre knew he was taking taxpayer dollars, $5 million to build a volleyball stadium at his alma mater and $1.1 million for speaking engagements he never gave.
Favre has paid back the $1.1 million but not the interest owed.
We asked White if he or his investigators had any reason to suspect Bryant of some of these things during their eight-month investigation, particularly what’s being alleged in news reports and court filings from other players in the scheme.
“No. What I would say is a lot of the things that you’ve seen that have come out, we were made aware of through the investigation after the first six people were arrested. And in fact, some of those texts and communications that people have really focused on, they didn’t even exist in those first seven months of our investigation,” White said. “They didn’t exist at that moment. So short answer is, we were very focused on those six people and those six people alone in order to prove that part of the case.”
“One might say that you were so focused on those six are proving the case for those six that you had your blinders on for the rest?” I said.
“No, I don’t think you’d say that. Because think about think about a drug investigation. All right. You look at a mid-level player and a drug cartel. And you think we think we know maybe who somebody is higher up the chain. But we have to prove our case against that mid-level player, or this case is going nowhere. So, let’s prove our case there. We don’t have blinders on to anybody. But we have to prove our case, let’s dedicate our resources to building the evidence against that mid-level player. And then let’s go do it,” White said.
Nearly three years ago, the auditor’s office handed the case over to federal authorities.
Five of the six players first indicted in the scandal have pleaded guilty, meaning they’re likely talking to investigators about others who have yet to be charged.
Court documents from Nancy New, for example, have blamed Bryant directly for many aspects of the federal welfare case.
Neither Bryant nor Favre have been charged with a crime at this point.
That’s something that White points out more than once during our interview that he has no control over.
“Prosecutors have this information in front of them. It’s just a matter of them making the decision, and I can’t make that decision for them. When you see those comments on social media, too. I think it’s, it’s coming from a place where folks think, ‘why can’t he just sentence these people? Why can’t he just lock them up? Why can’t he just tell them how long they’re going to be in prison?’ And that’s just not how the system works. It’s not how criminal justice works,” White said. “I cannot do that as an auditor. I mean, it’s in the title. I audit. The team here looks at facts and we present those facts to prosecutors, prosecutors don’t investigate, they have to go out and take the information they’re given, make those kinds of decisions.”
Below is the transcript for WLBT’s interview with State Auditor Shad White. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
WLBT: I think it’s important for the public to get to hear from you on these issues. Probably the one that you get more questions about than anything else, obviously. I wanted to start at the beginning at what point was, was your office sort of brought into this, was made aware that something was happening at DHS.
Shad White: Yeah, so that would be summer of 2019. So I was, I was actually driving to speak to the Mississippi Society of CPAs. And the first time we got a tip about this was a call from Governor Bryant at that time. And the information that we got based on that call was really very simple. It was, it looked like there might be a kickback going from a vendor that was serving DHS, and that was Brett Dibiase, his company, to John Davis, who is the head of DHS. So that’s really that that little bitty nugget of information was what we got and started working on in the summer of 2019.
And really over the course of those next few months, we start turning over rocks. And the more rocks we turn over, the more we realize this is not really a straightforward kickback scheme involving this vendor, and the head of the state agency. This looks much more like a broad, sprawling scheme that involves a ton of misspent money and some money that’s also been taken as a result of fraud. So the next big public event after that is early early on in 2020. We go over to the local DA, talk to him about what we have been seeing in February of 2020. They decide to indict six individuals. And of course, in any of our cases, you know this, C.J., in any of our cases, if we, if we see something, we’re not the ones who get to decide whether a defendant or a suspect faces criminal charges, that’s the decision of a prosecutor. So in this case, the local prosecutor made the decision, yes, we’re going to indict six of these individuals, we then go execute the arrest. So that becomes public, obviously, at that stage.
Shortly after that, we turned everything that we had over to the FBI so that we could assure the public that this was going to be thoroughly investigated. And then the next big thing that happened, I guess was my office unveiled a much more comprehensive audit of how [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] money had been spent during the John Davis tenure. And so that was really the first time that the public got to see, this is not just an indictment involving six people, this is something that involves a lot more money, a lot of it even if it hasn’t been stolen has been misspent. And it’s landed in the pockets of all sorts of folks that of course, Mississippians are more familiar with. So those are the big key early events that happened publicly.
WLBT: We’re talking an eight month investigation on behalf of, of your staff here in the auditor’s office. What were some of the major takeaways that you had?
White: Yeah, so think about this in the context of just any other investigation, you know, when you’re seeing what looks like a criminal enterprise, effectively, and you’re seeing money going out the door to that criminal enterprise. So for example, if we’re seeing a burglary scheme that’s going on around the city of Jackson, and we’re seeing that the people who are perpetuating that scheme are continuing to burglarize new homes every week or so, the first thing that you have in your mind and an investigation like that is okay, well, how do we prove beyond a reasonable doubt that these are the people who are doing it and prove what they’re doing, and put a stop to it as fast as possible? That’s what you’re thinking in the first few months of the investigation. So we’re looking and we’re seeing documents that TANF money is flying around all over the place. But once we get our heads around this, this fact that there are people here who have committed fraud, our real goal is to put a stop to the fraud as fast as possible.
The other thing that you’re kind of thinking in any sort of investigation is, all right, let’s let’s look at the investigation. Let’s see who has done something wrong that we know of based on the facts that we have in front of us. And they may not be the most important people in the food chain. They may not be the least important people. But just like if we were investigating a drug cartel, prove the case against the people that you can prove have done something wrong. And then if they talk about other folks in this cartel that have done something terrible, prosecutors can use that information and then they can work their way up the food chain. So those are the two big thoughts in my head in the fall of 2019. Let’s put a stop to this. And let’s finalize the cases that we can finalize against the people who we know have done something wrong here.
And that’s, that’s sort of where we are, you know, December or January or so of 2019, 2020. And that’s, that’s the point at which we say, okay, we’ve got an able working partner here in [Hinds County] DA Jody Owens and so let’s take the case to him. You may remember that he had just been elected and took office right at the beginning of that that month. And so that’s really the first moment we can go to him and say, “Hey, look, this is what we’ve got. I know you’re a new DA, sorry to plop something big on your desk. But this is important. And we need to put a stop to this as quickly as possible. The honeymoon’s over here, you get the money, the honeymoon is over.”
And really, you know, I had told him after he got elected, but before he took office, “I can’t give you any details, but we do have a large white collar fraud case that we see materializing Are you prepared to handle it?” And we had a frank conversation about the capabilities of his office and his approach to those kinds of cases. So I felt very comfortable with him. And I knew that that was going to be a fast, effective way to cut that money off to make sure that no more welfare money got pushed out the door to these folks who were who were defrauding the taxpayers.
WLBT: From the little experience I have in going through investigations, there are some parallels. And I wanted to kind of bring that up now. Because at the time, one of the hardest things, I think, is when you see that little morsel of something that seems suspect. You mentioned what looked like a kick back early on. There’s a difficulty in investigating because you don’t want to tip your hand to what you do have, because you don’t know who’s guilty and who’s in it. In this case, is it fair to say that with all of these other ongoing criminal civil cases, state and federal, this has gone far beyond where you can just say these are the only individuals involved?
White: You know, what we saw, at that juncture, talking about the end of 2019, beginning of 2020, was six folks who had worked together in different ways to defraud the taxpayers of money. We were doing a more comprehensive audit at the same time. So we saw, you know, morsels of information that suggested, “Well, you know, it’s weird that they also spent money donating to a charity here in town, what’s that about?” But we needed more time to figure out the full scope of what was happening. So basically, we knew what we saw among those six individuals and led with that.
WLBT: I know you’re familiar with [former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi] Mike Hurst putting out that statement early on saying that he had first learned about this scandal when the public did at the press conference, the first week of February 2020. He says you didn’t contact federal authorities until after those eight months of investigating. Why did the auditor’s office choose to bring federal authorities in, you know, toward the end or at the end of all this?
White: Yeah. So the first thing I would say about his statement is that the first bit of his statement is just not true. And he acknowledges that in the second half of his statement, which is very odd. So he did not find out about the case from the media the day of. I had briefed him prior to our arrest. So he knew that this was coming. In. You see in that statement, too, I think that he he basically telegraphs that he wanted the case, and that he didn’t get the case. The reason that I didn’t take it to him five months prior is that that’s not what we do in the auditor’s office, if we see something that looks like a case that we can handle, I mean, we have competent investigators here, they have a job, we have constitutional authority here. So we don’t open up a case file and say, “Looks like there’s a kickback between a vendor and a supervisor. Quick, somebody call the FBI.” You know, that’s just not how we operate here. We do our jobs here. So we started doing our jobs.
And when we realized, okay, this is a case that we know we can prove, based on our expertise in the office, let’s go ahead, let’s put a stop to the flow of funds. And then let’s tell the federal authorities that they can dig in and they can assist on this or they can take the lead, we can figure out who’s doing what. But we’re not going to wait around, once we have proven the case, to brief everybody and then hand it to the FBI and then wait for them to reinvestigate it and do all that sort of stuff. No, we’re going to do our jobs. If I had taken that road, I think I would be sitting here and I would be criticized by some folks for not doing my job. They would say, “Well, you just let the FBI handle everything. You have the constitutional authority right here to cut off that money, to enforce the law, and you chose to update the FBI and then wait for them to look at it, too. That’s, that’s not your job, you wasted millions of taxpayer dollars.”
I think folks will look back at the process and how this played out and say this was the absolute best way to handle this, because the money got cut off. And then of course, the full evidentiary file goes over to the FBI, the FBI says [they’d] like to take the lead on this at this point, we say absolutely, we’ll assist you. Of course, three years have gone by since then. But that helps guarantee the public that this case will be thoroughly investigated, because multiple agencies get to look at this and get to figure out what other evidentiary angles can we pursue. What other investigative angles can we pursue? How can we get to the bottom of everything that happened here?
WLBT: Is it correct to assume that because we’re having this in depth discussion about the DHS scandal that, at this point, the auditor’s office is done with the investigation?
White: No, the way I would frame it is, since 2020, there’s been basically an agreement in place that says federal authorities are going to take the leading role in the investigation. And so that’s why you saw, you know, after a certain period of time, federal prosecutors start to consider charges and then level charges against those six individuals that were originally indicted. Since that time, since those days in 2020, we have taken an assisting role to the FBI. So what that means in practical terms is the FBI is investigating it. Federal prosecutors have assured me that they’re going to make sure that the case is thoroughly investigated. And we’re playing an assisting role, meaning we have assigned resources in the auditor’s office, so an agent to go and help them. We’ve given them everything that we have, we allowed them to work from the auditor’s office for a period. So we’re not taking the leading role at this point, because I think it’s important that the public understand this is going to be thoroughly investigated, but we’re taking an assisting role. And that’s a very active role day by day.
In retrospect, you know, I’m proud of the work that my office did, because I think we moved quickly, and we put a stop to the flow of funds. And I’m a little biased, because I’m state auditor, but I think that the State Auditor’s Office has got some of the best investigators, maybe the best investigators in the state. And in my mind, we’re sort of like, we’re sort of like a [jet ski] as compared to a barge, that is the federal government. You know, we can move quickly and get into a position and do what we need to do as an investigative authority. We don’t have all the resources of the federal government -- the barge can do more damage than we can do -- but it takes time to get the barge to where it needs to go. So I think we’ve played this in the exact right way. And now, the good news is, the barge is moving in the right direction, as best I can tell. And at the end of the day, the case will be thoroughly investigated. The prosecutors, both state and federal are gonna have all the facts in front of them, and they’re gonna get to make a decision about what they want to do with it.
WLBT: As we look at these plea deals, and these delays in sentencing associated with these cases, these individuals involved here, what kind of insight can you give those of us who aren’t really familiar with why that happens and how it will affect the case going forward?
White: Yeah, so I’ll speak generally about cases. Generally, when you see somebody plead guilty, and they confirm for prosecutors, usually in their plea colloquy usually, when they’re pleading guilty, that they’re going to cooperate with the prosecutors, and they’re going to provide all the information that they have about what happened here. And then the judge delays sentencing. Usually what that signals to the public is that that person is cooperating. They believe they have some valuable information, they’re going to give that valuable information over the prosecutor, and the prosecutor is going to get to use it to decide if they want to charge anybody else. And so then the sentencing is withheld on that first defendant until the prosecutor makes that determination. Was this useful? Was it not? Can I charge anybody else? Am I just going to move on and close the case? So generally speaking, that’s what that’s what you should be thinking about when you see a judge say we’re going to delay sentencing, and the word “cooperation” comes up.
Now, speaking specifically about this case, I obviously can’t tell you what that information is. Some of that information, frankly, is not known to people in my office, because really, at this stage of the game, those defendants are communicating directly to prosecutors. So those are the folks who are going to be receiving the most current evidence that that exists in the case. And then also, I couldn’t...I wouldn’t speculate for you what that means for anybody else in the case, because that, ultimately, is the decision of the prosecutor. No court wants to see somebody out there saying, “Well, I think this might mean this, and this might mean that and prejudicing the case before it even starts.”
WLBT: Is there some degree of frustration from your end? That tendency to want to be directing the investigation, and having to be hands off at this point?
White: As somebody who’s an attorney myself, you know, you always think as a lawyer, “Oh, I would handle the case kind of differently.” But I try to turn that off as best I can. Because I know that I’m not the prosecutor, in this case. The prosecutors are competent folks, and they’ve got a skill set that fits very well with this kind of case. So those prosecutors are well situated to make the right call in this. And then the other thing that I would say, you know, generally is, I tend to be a person who wants to move quickly once we have good actionable information. The case has dragged on now for what, we’re at over three years since the federal authorities started really looking at this. So that’s a long amount of time. I always want things to have happened yesterday. But But all that said, I understood at the very beginning, what I just described to you earlier, that that we can move faster, just because we have a smaller team, and and different capabilities here, we can just move faster than the federal government, which has far more rules on it, which has more resources, but with more resources, comes more eyeballs that need to look at everything. So yeah, there’s a little frustration some days with the pace of the case. But at the same time, I think that’s just part of working in law enforcement. And ultimately, we have the system set up for a reason is to make sure that justice is achieved at the end of the day. And I think justice is going to be achieved at the end of the day, because all the right parties are at the table.
WLBT: Certainly a great deal of frustration with members of the public, and anticipation. I know that you get that on social media, I know that people don’t shy away from posting certainly on our Facebook posts and other things to the way they feel about it as though as far as so and so should have been indicted or so and so needs to be involved. Can you explain what it would take for your office to get involved to the degree that it did initially? Again, you know, now that you have other parties that are that are involved here?
White: Well, I don’t think that there’s a role for us to do what we did, again, because it’s basically been done, you know, the I think the frustration that’s coming from those folks, is this belief that Shad is auditor/investigator plus prosecutor plus judge plus jury plus executioner, you know, and they think that if I’m not the one who is throwing somebody in jail and telling them, “You’re gonna stay there for 20 years” that I haven’t done my job. That’s not my job. That’s actually no one person’s job. There’s a full system that our democracy, our democratic republic has set up to make sure that every person’s rights are completely protected. And so the thing that we do in the auditor’s office is audit and investigate. I mean, it’s in the title. We audit. Nowhere in my title, does it say state prosecutor, nowhere in my title, does it say judge. So really, we have done the piece that we have the authority to do. And at this stage, of course, since the FBI is taking the primary lead investigative role, we’re assisting them. And that’s the limit of our jurisdiction, basically, is to get as much info as possible in front of the prosecutors, a lot of that info, frankly, has been pushed out in the public. Now. I mean, I think that you’ve seen as a result of the civil case that the state has filed, you see a lot of text messages that have come out and newspaper articles. This is all of course, after our arrests, and after the audit that we did. So prosecutors have this information in front of them. It’s just a matter of them making the decision, and I can’t make that decision for them. When you see those comments on social media, too. I think it’s, it’s coming from a place where folks think, well, Shad White’s face has been on the front of the newspaper with this case, why can’t he just sentence these people? Why can’t he just lock them up? Why can’t he just tell them how long they’re going to be in prison? And that’s just not how the system works. It’s not how criminal justice works.
WLBT: Or bring charges against Brett Favre or former Gov. Bryant.
White: I cannot do that as as an auditor. I mean, it’s in the title. I audit. The team here looks at facts and we present those facts to prosecutors, prosecutors don’t investigate, they have to go out and take the information they’re given, make those kinds of decisions.
WLBT: You alluded to the text messages. Of course it became public through Mississippi Today’s reporting and showed the public some degree of what your investigators had in the state auditors office’s possession. Some of this including fairly compelling evidence that the former governor had been involved with helping to secure funding for that volleyball stadium at the University of Southern Miss. Did it pique your investigators attention when they saw this because your office had these text messages as well?
White: Yeah, I mean, I would, I would break it down chronologically, I guess. So you know, if you’re thinking about 2019, the first things that we’re seeing are invoices going out to vendors like Ted DiBiase. And we’re seeing we’re seeing payments that are going from DHS, to Nancy and Zack New’s nonprofit. And then we’re seeing the different ways that those payments sometimes landed in the pockets of Nancy and Zach. Now, once we see that, and once you think, okay, we have a criminal case here, what you’re going to do is you’re going to hone in on those cases. You know, your next step is not going to be “Let’s go get Brett Favre.” That’s just not the way an investigation works. So through the fall of 2019, we’re really honing in on those cases that we think we can prove. And we’re trying to build the evidentiary file to prove them beyond a reasonable doubt. And then once we feel like we’ve done that, that’s when we’re going to a prosecutor and saying, Hey, we don’t know how big this whole thing is, we’re going to find out. We don’t know how big it is. But we know we have proven fraud cases against these six people.
In any dialogue like that, with the prosecutor, the prosecutor may say, “Well, I don’t think you’re very strong on this person.” Or you might think that you got cases against eight people, but I think you’ve only got cases against six. You have this dialogue, right? And then the prosecutor makes a decision about who they’re going to ultimately indict. So really, when you’re talking about these text messages that came out later, we had not seen a lot of that kind of stuff in the early phases of the investigation, because that just wasn’t the focus. We’re trying to prove up the fraud cases that we have in front of us. Now, after, after you get done with those initial indictments, you keep digging, of course, you’re not going to stop. And so then you’re starting to see some of the text messages that bubble up that now the public has seen as well. And so yeah, I mean, we’re, of course, looking at a lot of these and thinking this is an avenue that an investigator needs to pursue. These are questions that need to be asked, this is another thing to look at. We’re doing that all in the capacity of an assisting role with the FBI to make sure that that multiple bodies are looking at this and putting our heads together about where this thing needs to go.
WLBT: One might say that you were so focused on those six or proving the case for those six that you had your blinders on for the rest.
White: No, I don’t think you’d say that. Because think about think about a drug investigation. All right. You look at a mid-level player and a drug cartel. And you think we know maybe who somebody is higher up the chain. But we have to prove our case against that mid-level player, or this case is going nowhere. So let’s prove our case there. We don’t have blinders on to anybody. But we have to prove our case, let’s dedicate our resources to building the evidence against that mid-level player. And then let’s go do it.
And so then, you know, once you get that person, and especially once they plead guilty, and they’re giving you information, or they’re giving the prosecutor information, then you can play it forward, right? I think some of this is coming from a place where people now know about the full scope of the case. They know a lot about it, they know about, you know, the text messages, and they know about the documents and all this stuff that we dug up in the auditor’s office. And they’re thinking, Well, if you knew all this from day three, why didn’t you do something about it? We didn’t know all this stuff from day three. That’s not how an investigation works. What we know on day three is that somebody said that a vendor might have given a kickback to a state agency head. That takes a ton of work to get from that to where we are now. The knowledge doesn’t just drop into your head.
And then the other thing I would say is that some of the text messages that have become controversial had not even been sent in 2019. So you know, we’re investigating this, some of those communications didn’t even exist yet. So really, I think we did this in the way that you would do any standard investigation textbook, which is to focus on what you can prove, and then bring somebody else in to help you finish up the full force of the case, basically.
WLBT: Would it be inappropriate for you to investigate former Governor Bryant at all given that he appointed you to the role that you’re now duly elected to? Others have said that Shad should have recused himself, even though at the beginning you may not have known he was involved.
White: I don’t understand that criticism, because if you say you should recuse yourself, what practically are you talking about what steps what you’re talking about is handing the case over to another investigator, which is literally what we did, right? We literally handed the case over to another investigative body and said, take it and run with it. And then they said, Well, you help us. We said, Yeah, sure, okay, fine. We’ll assign an agent, you can come work in the office, if you want. We’ll give you our full evidentiary file. So when that criticism bubbles up, the typical way I respond is to say, “Oh, you mean to do the very thing that I did three years ago? I did exactly what you wanted me to do three years ago. What other criticism can you come up with?” In fact, I’ve asked some of the reporters who have raised that question, what would you have done differently? How could you have handled it differently? Would you hand it to a third investigative body? Who is that body? What is it? Who else has jurisdiction over it? And nobody has an answer for that question.
I think the basic point is that it’s more fun for some people to play in conspiracy theories, and to try to get clicks than it is to look at what actually happened. And the frustration that I feel as a result of those kinds of critiques is not just that they don’t make any sense is that that is questioning the ability of everybody in this office to do their job. Because if you’re saying, well, Shad didn’t handle this quite right, you’re not just saying Shad didn’t handle it quite right. You’re saying career investigators didn’t handle it quite right. You’re saying people with CPAs, with their licenses on the line didn’t handle it quite right. In fact, what you’re saying is that the one regulatory body who stepped up and put a stop to this shouldn’t be given credit for doing their very jobs. You know, it would have been incredibly easy for me to just say we’re not going to look at this. It’s too complicated, too messy. But I’m not willing to do that in this job. Because I was elected for a reason. I don’t want to look back at this job and think I overlooked the hard cases just to avoid controversy. That’s not what this is about. So I really just don’t understand the criticism. We have done exactly what some of those folks are asking us to do. It’s just they have more fun playing that point up when it doesn’t make any sense, because it’s more fun to dabble in a conspiracy theory and then try to get clicks basically,
WLBT: When you began, and even throughout this eight month investigation, did you or your investigators have reason to suspect former Governor Bryant of some of these things that now are being alleged at this point?
White: No, what I would say is a lot of the things that you’ve seen that have come out, we were made aware of through the investigation after the first six people were arrested. And in fact, some of those texts and communications that people have really focused on, they didn’t even exist in those first seven months of our investigation. They didn’t exist at that moment. So short answer is, we were very focused on those six people and those six people alone in order to prove that part of the case. And then what you do is you see where it goes from there. So that I think is a textbook way you handle an investigation. That’s the way we did it here.
WLBT: I was going to ask you about something that multiple news outlets covered , where you had credited former Gov. Bryant as the whistleblower in the case. Do you still stand by that in terms of terminology?
White: Well, I’ll tell you, the question that I was asked is, “Who is the whistleblower?” And so there’s a statute in Mississippi law, and it defines who the whistleblower is. And it’s very straightforward. The whistleblower is the person who takes information leading to a criminal case to a law enforcement body. And then the statute is pretty plain. It lists out who the law enforcement bodies are as examples. And the State Auditor’s Office is listed there as an example. So if you’re, or if I’m asking you, who brought information about the case to the State Auditor’s Office, what’s the answer? There’s only one answer. And so I can either lie and not say the truth, or I can say the truth and what the actual answer is. So people can judge for themselves about how much credit they want to give former Gov. Bryant for how much information he divulged. That’s, that’s up to the public. I mean, for me, when I’m asked that very straightforward question, I can either lie and tell you somebody else’s name, or I can tell you the name of the person who brought to the auditor’s office. There’s only a couple of choices there.
WLBT: When somebody comes forward with information like that, is it fair to say you don’t always suspect them as being involved themselves?
White: I wouldn’t say it that way. Because we see a lot of cases in the auditor’s office and some of those cases involve somebody coming forward. And then saying, “hey, I want to turn in my neighbor.” But they’ve also done something wrong, too, and maybe totally unrelated. You know, there may be just a culture of corruption and a little bitty town. And so you know, them turning in their neighbor provides no cover for them legally, if they’ve done something wrong in a completely separate case, or in a separate separate sort of charge or something like that. So short answer is no. I mean, we take the information. And, you know, anytime we take information, we use it to go out and build an investigation, but we’re not taking it as God’s honest truth. And we’re also not taking it as the full truth, we’re just going to do our jobs, we’re using this as an entree to get into the facts, basically.
WLBT: As it is laid out in statute, one could come forward and provide information that provides the beginning of a criminal investigation, even if that person themselves is a part of it, and could still be considered a whistleblower this case?
White: Yeah, sure, sure. And I think it’s important to look at what the whistleblower protections are, it’s not you shall not be charged with any crime for the rest of your life, right. It’s more like, you can’t be fired. If you blow the whistle on something happening and happening at an agency. You know, and of course, in Governor Bryant’s case, that’s not any real protection, because he’s not going to be fired as governor for bringing something forward. But but for a normal employee of an agency, let’s say an mdot, employee comes forward, and they say, Hey, I’ve seen somebody stealing up the chain, one of the big bosses is doing something bad, that whistleblower statute is going to provide them with some significant layer of protection. And it’s also going to provide them with the option for anonymity at the end of the day, if they want to just stay quiet and not be known. And that’s going to that’s going to provide that option too. So it’s not a it’s not a Get Out of Jail Free card or something like that. It is just a statute, which is very plain white space.
WLBT: Are you satisfied with the pacing of the case now that it’s essentially, you know, in these other law enforcement agencies lap from the standpoint of, of these criminal and civil cases at this point?
White: I think if you asked anybody who worked for me, the question “is Shad ever satisfied with the pace of how things are going?” probably to a man or woman, the answer is no, he is not satisfied with the pace. I mean, on any investigation that we have. I’m a pusher. I’m somebody who wants to get it done yesterday. And of course, we want to be careful. And we want to be thoughtful about how we pursue something. But I think a good healthy sense of urgency from the top at the State Auditor’s Office is important. It’s one of the reasons why I think it’s a good thing that the state auditor is elected, because I feel pressure from the voters to get things done, which means the agents and the auditors here they feel pressure to do good work, bulletproof work, and to get it done quickly. We’re not some sleepy bureaucracy where nobody answers to the voters as a whole. So I’m never satisfied with the pacing of things. This case has taken a long time. Three years. I think some of the public’s frustration with the case is that my face has been at the front of a lot of the news articles involving the case. And so people sort of think, well, if it’s going slow, it must be his fault. That’s not the case. It’s it’s going slow. Because we’ve done our jobs and have handed the case over to people who now need to do their jobs. But all that said, slowness is part of the process. You look back at big complex investigations. I’m sure at some point in the past, somebody said this Enron investigation is moving along too slowly. But the end result is the right result. Right. So I know we’re going to get there eventually.
WLBT: Anything you wanted to add that I didn’t ask?
White: There’s one other area that we didn’t touch on, which is, as we were closing out this kind of first phase of the investigation. You know, I knew that this case involved multiple prominent high profile Republicans. I mean, we have an agency head that’s been appointed by a Republican governor, we’ve got donors to Republican campaigns, who are influential people here in town. So one of my early concerns was, will people think Shad White, who’s Republican, handed this case over to Mike Hurst, the U.S. Attorney, who’s also Republican, and will they together collude to bury whatever needs to happen in this case?
And so that was yet another reason why we said in the auditor’s office, we need to take this case to the local DA, one, because we know that he can move faster, and he can cut off the flow of funds, we’re not going to have to sit and wait for the federal authorities to investigate this and watch more money go out the door, but two, people are going to understand that Jody Owens, who’s an elected Democrat, is not going to take it easy on somebody because they’re a Republican. That same sort of lesson holds true today. You know, when somebody says, well, Shad, why haven’t you filed charges against so and so? Well, I say when it’s not my job, I’m not allowed to do that. I’m not the prosecutor. But by the way, the prosecutor in this case, are the federal attorneys from the Biden Department of Justice. Do you think they’re gonna go soft on a Republican? No, no, we not only have multiple agencies looking at this case and making decisions, but we have people from a wide variety of political opinions looking at this too. So I don’t think political opinions will play a role in how this case ultimately shakes out. But for those people who want to make that argument, they have absolutely no leg to stand on, because you’re going to get a whole bunch of folks with very different opinions about the world, all looking at the same facts, all getting to make their own decisions. That’s true at the prosecutor level, too. So not only do you get to see a local DA look at this case, and federal prosecutors who work under the Biden Department of Justice, but you’ve also got the state attorney general, who’s an elected Republican. She has full jurisdiction over this, they have the full case file, they can look at it too, they can do whatever they want to do with it. So we’ve got multiple parties looking at this, they’re gonna get to make their decisions. And I think the public is going to hold them accountable for the results at the end of it. If the public feels that the case has been tried fairly, that the right people have been charged based on the facts, that’s great. If not, then I think the public will see that and hold them accountable.
WLBT: You feel like we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg as this case, once the product of your eight-month investigation with these six individuals indicted, now is being pursued at the federal level?
White: That certainly was the tip of the iceberg. Absolutely. And a lot more of the iceberg I think was revealed when we pushed out our audit a couple of months later, you know, that was the first time the audit was the first time people realized, oh, $1.1 million, went to Brett Favre in the contract that justified that required some speeches that he didn’t give. That was the first time that people really saw all the documentation around the volleyball expenditure. The indictment, another great example. The indictment was the first time anybody had ever read the word “predicates” as it related to welfare funds in Mississippi. But of course, the audit that we produced really put the meat on the bone and told people okay, when we made a reference to “privatize” in that indictment, that company is doing this, and these are the players and this is the money that actually went to them. So, yeah, I think over time, what you see is more and more of that iceberg being revealed. I think a lot of it has been revealed at this point. I mean, the public knows about the core facts that happened here. And really what we’re waiting for now, the next sort of shoe to drop is this decision by prosecutors about what they want to do with all of that.
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