Wasted welfare money sparks candidates' feud in election for Mississippi governor

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Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves addresses the crowd at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss., Thursday, July 27, 2023. Reeves faces two opponents in the party primary Aug. 8, as he seeks reelection. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

JACKSON, Miss. – The Democrat trying to unseat Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves is pushing hard to tie the Republican incumbent to a welfare misspending scandal that developed while Reeves was lieutenant governor, but the Reeves campaign says challenger Brandon Presley is engaging in false and “nonsensical” attacks.

Both candidates are looking past next Tuesday's party primaries, in which Presley is unopposed and Reeves faces two nominal challengers, to frame the general election contest. Republicans have long dominated the state, but Presley, a cousin of legendary rocker Elvis Presley, hopes to pull off a surprise.

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Former Mississippi Department of Human Services director John Davis and other people — including two who previously donated to Reeves' campaigns — have pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to the misuse of welfare money that was intended to help some of the poorest people in the U.S.

From 2016 to 2019, the Mississippi Department of Human Services misspent more than $77 million in money from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, according to the state auditor. Prosecutors have said the department gave money to nonprofit organizations that spent it on projects such as a $5 million volleyball facility at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Davis led the department from February 2016 to July 2019 after being nominated by then-Republican Gov. Phil Bryant and confirmed by the state Senate, where Reeves presided as lieutenant governor.

Presley, who is in his fourth term as a state utility regulator on the Public Service Commission, released a campaign commercial Tuesday saying that welfare misspending included money for a horse ranch, a volleyball stadium and $1.3 million to pay Reeves' “personal trainer."

“If you’re Tate Reeves' personal trainer, the guy that teaches him to do jumping jacks, then you can get $1.3 million,” Presley said at a news conference in May — a line he has used at several campaign appearances.

A 2020 state auditor's report said a nonprofit organization, Mississippi Community Education Center, used welfare money to pay Victory Sports Foundation to conduct fitness classes that Mississippi legislators and other elected officials took for free. The foundation was run by a former Mississippi State University football player, Paul Lacoste.

“The ‘personal trainer’ reference is a blatantly false characterization,” the Reeves campaign said in a statement Tuesday. The statement said Reeves participated in group classes taught by Lacoste, not one-on-one sessions.

The Mississippi Department of Human Services in 2022 sued about three dozen people or businesses to try to recover welfare money that was misspent on projects including a rural home with land for horses, the volleyball facility and the fitness classes. Those being sued include the Mississippi Community Education Center, Lacoste, Victory Sports Foundation and NFL Hall of Famer Brett Favre.

That lawsuit is still pending, and a judge has rejected Favre's effort to be removed from it. Favre is not facing criminal charges, but the civil suit says welfare money was improperly spent on projects the retired quarterback supported — $5 million for the volleyball facility at the university where his daughter played the sport and $1.7 million for the development of a concussion drug.

The Reeves campaign said all examples of welfare misspending mentioned in the Presley commercial happened before Reeves became governor.

“The Reeves administration has launched lawsuits that cover all of these cases to recover any misspent funds,” the governor's campaign statement said.

Neither the Reeves statement nor the Presley commercial mention that Reeves, as lieutenant governor, had considerable power over setting the state budget, including for the Department of Human Services, and that the state Senate has power to hold hearings about the conduct of state agencies.

The Presley commercial says Reeves fired an investigator “who got too close” to uncovering answers about the welfare misspending.

In July 2022, the Mississippi Department of Human Services did not renew the contract of investigator Brad Pigott, who had been a U.S. attorney when Democratic President Bill Clinton was in office. In August 2022, the department said it had hired a law firm to try to recover money in the state's largest public corruption case.

The Reeves campaign said that Pigott, “a solo practitioner attorney,” was replaced by a “full-service law firm with far more resources."

“In December of 2022, the new, larger law firm added numerous additional defendants and is vigorously pursuing the lawsuit,” the Reeves campaign said.

In next Tuesday's Republican primary, Reeves faces two challengers who are running low-budget campaigns. Presley is unopposed for the Democratic nomination. The two party nominees and independent candidate Gwendolyn Gray will be on the Nov. 7 general election ballot.

Mississippi, Louisiana and Kentucky are the only states electing governors this year.

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