Mon. Jul 15th, 2024

She won a Pulitzer for exposing how the nation’s poorest state spent federal welfare money. Now she might go to jail.

By 37ci3 Jul2,2024

When Anna Wolfe won the Pulitzer Prize For his dogged reporting on Mississippi’s welfare fraud scandal, he had no idea he would soon be battling the prospect of prison time.

But a little more than a year after he won journalism’s top prize for exposing how $77 million in federal welfare funds went to athletes, friends and pet projects, he and his editor, Adam Ganucheu, are wondering what to pack for a long stint behind bars. Sued for defamation by the state’s former governor – the focus of their report – they were hit with a court order demanding they hand over internal documents, including the names of confidential sources. They say that this order is a threat to journalism and they will resist it.

“If one of us goes to jail, we will be the first to go to jail in the Mississippi welfare scandal,” Wolfe told NBC News, referring to the eight indictments, none of which have yet resulted in a crime. sentence. “How can I promise sources to keep them confidential if possible?”

For more on this story, tune into NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt tonight at 6:30 PM ET/5:30 PM CT or check your local listings.

The case has drawn attention outside Mississippi as an example of how public figures can make life difficult for news organizations long before they can provide the evidence of “actual malice” needed to prove defamation cases. Mississippi Today, the independent nonprofit that employed Wolfe and Ganucheau, is asking the state Supreme Court to overturn the order. Bryant appointed four of the nine judges.

“Breaching the confidentiality of sources violates one of the most sacred beliefs and one of the most vital tools in investigative journalism,” Ganusheu wrote in a recent article. New York Times publication. “No serious news organization would agree to this demand.”

(Andy Luck, former chairman of NBC News, He is the executive chairman of Mississippi Today’s Board of Directors.)

The plaintiff in the defamation case is Phil Bryant, who was governor when the scandal broke, first with a state auditor’s report and then with a blizzard of coverage by Mississippi Today. Bryant, who has not been charged with a crime and says he did nothing illegal, claims the online news organization wrongly accused him of criminal wrongdoing.

He declined to be interviewed, but his attorney, Billy Quin, said the lawsuit is not about punishing good reporting.

“I didn’t sue them because they exposed $77 million in misappropriation. He applauds them for doing that,” he said. “The lawsuit is related to defamation.”

Phil Bryant.
Phil Bryant in Beverly Hills, California in 2019.Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg via Getty Images file

The scandal came to light after Wolfe began raising questions about how a poor state turns away more than 90% of people who apply for welfare. He wanted to know where the federal money was going. His inquiries led to a referral to the state auditor, who in 2020 issued a scathing report questioning more than $90 million in spending.

The details were amazing enough to do national news, though not surprising to many Mississippians. In America’s poorest state, where only a few thousand families a year qualify for welfare, white state officials and their partners diverted vast amounts of federal welfare money intended for the poor and mostly black women and children, according to public records.

The money went to well-connected people and their favorite causes, public records show, and most of it did little to help poor people. They include the more than $5 million softball facility at the University of Southern Mississippi. former NFL football star Brett Favrewhose daughter happened to be on the softball team there.

Favre, who was not charged, also received 1.1 million dollars for alleged promotional efforts. And Prevacus, a drug company he owns, received $2.1 million, according to public records. Favre lobbied the governor to secure the money, according to text messages obtained by Mississippi Today.

“It’s 3rd and a long time coming and we need you to make it happen!!” Favre texted Bryant on December 26, 2018. Bryant replied, “I’ll dig a hole.”

Brett Favre.
Brett Favre in Canton, Ohio in 2016.Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images file

The question of Bryant’s role in the spending was the focus of the report in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles.Back Channel.” It is now sued for defamation.

“The investigation, published in a multi-part series in 2022, revealed for the first time how former Gov. Phil Bryant used his office to manage the spending of millions of federal welfare dollars — money meant to help the state’s poorest residents. family and friends, including NFL Hall of Famer Brett Favre,” Mississippi Today reported when the award was announced.

Bryant disputes these and similar statements, saying he played no role in the diversion of the money. Quin said the man who did it was state welfare director John Davis, who pleaded guilty in September 2022 to federal fraud and theft charges but has yet to be sentenced.

Anna Wolfe.
Mississippi Today reporter Anna Wolfe won a 2023 Pulitzer Prize for reporting that exposed a Mississippi welfare scandal that led to the criminal prosecution of eight people.NBC News

“The fact is, I didn’t do anything wrong,” Bryant said in a May 2023 statement. “I was not aware of the wrong actions of others. When I received evidence that the proposed persons had embezzled the funds, I immediately informed the agency responsible for investigating these issues.”

Bryant did not file a lawsuit until after the articles were published in April 2022, and in fact, the statute of limitations for defamation claims in Mississippi runs after one year. But in February 2023, Mississippi Today CEO Mary Margaret White mischaracterized the report at a journalism conference in Miami.

“We are the newsroom that broke the news about a $77 million welfare fund intended for the poorest people in the poorest state in the country, appropriated by the former governor and his bureaucratic cronies. “The state-of-the-art softball stadium at Brett Favre’s alma mater,” he said.

Image: University of Southern Mississippi women's softball facility
A $5 million federal welfare fund intended for children in poverty was allegedly used to build a women’s softball facility at the University of Southern Mississippi.NBC News

Embezzlement is a crime, and Bryant was never charged or even prosecuted. There is no indication that he is the target of an ongoing federal investigation into the welfare fraud scandal.

In May 2023—a few days after the Pulitzer announcement—Quin sent Mississippi Today a notice of intent to sue, citing “misappropriation” of the note. A week later, White published one public apology, said: “At a recent media conference, I misspoke about allegations against former governor Phil Bryant in the $77 million welfare scandal. He has not been charged with any crime. My note was inappropriate and I sincerely apologize.”

But Quin said the apology should go further, saying Mississippi Today has no evidence Bryant embezzled the funds.

“The bottom line is ‘you’ve embezzled $77 million and the criminal authorities are doing nothing about it,'” he said. “So we have to give the situation one of their favorite words, accountability. Well, now the rabbit has a gun; let’s see who will answer.”

Supreme Court of the State of Mississippi.
Mississippi Today is facing a court order to hand over internal documents and communications to classified sources. The news organization is asking the state Supreme Court to overturn the decision. If that doesn’t happen, Mississippi Today says it will seek relief from the federal courts.NBC News

Quin has since put together more recent articles and claims that references to the Backchannel series are a “replication” that makes the whole thing fair game.

“These defamatory comments hit him very hard,” Quin said. “He has the right to protect himself. He has the right to exercise his rights like everyone else.”

To win a defamation lawsuit, a public figure must show that someone published false information with “actual malice,” or reckless disregard for the truth. Quin said that’s why the paper needs internal emails and the names of confidential sources, which journalists are reluctant to ever provide. The order asks that the materials be turned over to a judge first, who will decide whether any of the evidence is relevant to the defamation claim.

“This is not a fishing expedition,” Quin said. “The judge reviews the documents you cite to support your defamatory statements to determine if they support what you’re saying.”

Anna Wolfe, Chris Wolfe and Bethel Wolfe.
Mississippi Today reporter Anna Wolfe, center, celebrates winning the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting with her family in Jackson, Miss.Rogelio V. Solis / AP file

But journalists are extremely reluctant to give the names of confidential sources to anyone, even judges.

“It will have a chilling effect for sources going forward,” Ganucheau said. “It will force journalists in Mississippi to second-guess how they collected what they collected and whether they should have collected it in the first place.”

Meanwhile, fighting what he sees as a baseless lawsuit takes a toll on one of the state’s most accomplished reporters.

“It makes it hard to do my job,” Wolfe said. “I mean, I’m working on a big story right now, and I feel like I’m going to get sued. Now I feel that anything I try to report will be met with the same level of gaslighting, intimidation and scrutiny. So it definitely affects my day-to-day life.”

And Wolfe said it’s not clear that more money is going to Mississippi’s poorest. As of June, Mississippi, where 548,000 people live in poverty, received federal welfare grants administered by 1,423 families and 2,522 individuals, according to state figures.

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By 37ci3

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