‘I did nothing wrong’: Former governor to release text messages in TANF scandal

Published: May. 4, 2023 at 11:01 AM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A former Mississippi governor is slated to release text messages and emails Thursday that he says will clear his name in the state’s largest embezzlement scandal.

Former Gov. Phil Bryant is releasing text messages and emails that have been requested by news organizations related to the misuse of millions of dollars in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families money.

Those organizations, Mississippi Today, the Mississippi Free Press and Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, filed motions earlier this year compelling the release of communications regarding the construction and funding of a volleyball center at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Approximately $5 million in TANF funds were used to construct the volleyball stadium at the Hattiesburg campus.

Mississippi Free Press Editor and CEO Donna Ladd said in a statement on the publication’s website that she welcomed the news.

“That’s a victory for public transparency,” she said. “We joined other media outlets in this effort because we believe the public has the right to view those messages to see what, if anything new, they reveal about the theft of federal welfare funds.”

Bryant’s records were also subpoenaed last July as part of the same suit filed by the Mississippi Department of Human Services and Mississippi Community Education Center filed in Hinds County Circuit Court.

The correspondence is expected to be released at 5 p.m., according to a statement obtained by WLBT.

The former governor released a video statement at bryanttexts.com, maintaining that he’s done nothing wrong and that he was a “whistleblower” who actually brought the misspending to light.

“After much thought and discussion with counsel, I made the decision to forgo any arguments about executive privilege in this matter and simply release them all,” he said. “Frankly, I’m tired of paying legal fees for lawsuits that I’m not a party to, to protect my privacy and an executive privilege that should exist for future governors.”

Bryant, in his statement, goes on to say the only thing the texts reveal is a “busy man” and a “governor of state communicating in a kind and consistent manner with everyone with whom I dealt.”

“In large part, my text messages consist of salutations, thumbs up emojis, and ‘will dos,’ and ‘I’ll check on it,’ and ‘sounds good,’” he said.

He says the messages have been misreported by the media and used as a weapon against him. “Most of the messages, if all, the media wants you to see have already been reported and twisted and reported again.”

Ladd, though, disputed the former governor’s claim, saying, “We’ve been clear since the state auditor and Hinds DA broke the news of the scandal... that we have not yet seen evidence that those who are not already charged with a crime are guilty of a crime or have broken a specific law, including Phil Bryant.”

As for the volleyball center at USM, he says the transaction was approved by over a dozen lawyers from multiple entities.”

“The Institutions of Higher Learning, the Attorney General’s Office, the Department of Human Services and Southern Miss, as well as attorneys from multiple non-profits, all approved that transaction, knowing where the money came from,” he said.

“As governor, if I wanted to make a transaction like that happen, I didn’t have the power to do so.”

The former governor goes on to say that once the communications are released, they again will be mischaracterized by “a billionaire-driven media outlet and Democratic political consultants.”

Bryant was referring to Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization, whose funders include Jim Barksdale and Richard F. Scruggs.

Adam Ganucheau, editor-in-chief of that publication, answered Bryant’s criticism.

“As many elected officials do, they’ll try to kind of deflect and point toward the media and blame the media, even. ‘These reporters are out to hurt conservatives.’ I think that’s how he put it in this video statement today,” Ganucheau said. “I would say to that, you know, as reporters as journalists, it’s our job to be the eyes and the ears of the public. No one has the access or ability to go to former Gov. Bryant or a current elected official and say, you know, we have some questions for you. But we as journalists do.”

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