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Former Gov. Phil Bryant files lawsuit against Mississippi Today over welfare scandal reporting

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Former Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant has filed a defamation suit against the CEO of Mississippi Today and the nonprofit corporate owner of the website for comments made relating to the state’s ongoing welfare scandal.

Bryant sent a letter addressed to Deep South Today — Mississippi Today’s parent company — and Mississippi Today CEO Mary Margaret White on Monday, claiming that false and libelous statements were made in two articles within the past year.

In May, the former Republican governor issued a notice of suit accusing the CEO of making false statements during a panel discussion hosted by the Knight Foundation in February. Bryant’s team also pointed out that misleading comments were made by editor-in-chief Adam Ganucheau and investigative reporter Anna Wolfe during an episode of Mississippi Today’s “The Other Side” podcast.

Since then, White has clarified that Bryant has not been charged with any crimes related to the scandal and has requested for the recording of the panel discussion to be removed from the foundation’s website.

Now, Bryant’s attorney, William Quin II, has filed a defamation suit against Deep South Today and White after the CEO did not issue a public apology or retract her previous remarks.

“White’s accusation and subsequent statement convey that Bryant embezzled $77 million of welfare funds, but criminal authorities have failed to prosecute him,” Quin wrote in the suit. “This message is consistent with Wolfe’s comments 14 months earlier. Ganucheau and Wolfe did not apologize or retract and correct the misinformation they supplied during the podcast.”

Quin has also accused the publication of falsely reporting Bryant’s role in the welfare case in an article titled “Reporting with impact: 2022 mid-year report” in August 2022. The article contained a link to Mississippi Today’s 2022 Impact Report, which contained an excerpt detailing Wolfe’s series “The Backchannel.”

“Anna Wolfe, our poverty and investigative reporter, began publishing her investigative series ‘The Backchannel’, which revealed former Gov. Phil Bryant’s role in a sprawling welfare scandal,” the report said. “Each part of the series delved further into Bryant’s misuse and squandering of at least $77 million in federal funds meant to assist nearly 588,000 of the state’s poorest residents.”

Quin stated in the notice of suit that Bryant “did not misuse and squander at least $77 million in federal funds, and Wolfe’s investigative series did not reveal that he did.”

“Mississippi Today’s accusation that Bryant misused and squandered at least $77 million of federal funds injures Bryant’s reputation; it exposes him to ‘public hatred, contempt or ridicule;’ it ‘degrade[s] him in society;’ and it ‘lessen[s] him in public esteem or lower[s] him in the confidence of the community,’” Quin explained.

The letter continued, citing a section from another article published by Mississippi Today on May 8, 2023, titled “Anna Wolfe and Mississippi Today win Pulitzer Prize for ‘The Backchannel’ investigation.”

“The investigation, published in a multi-part series in 2022, revealed for the first time how former Gov. Phil Bryant used his office to steer the spending of millions of federal welfare dollars – money intended to help the state’s poorest residents – to benefit his family and friends, including NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre,” the article stated.

As a result, Bryant’s attorney is claiming that the comments made in both articles were made with “actual malice” and that Mississippi Today’s statements have caused damage against the former governor.

In return, Bryant is requesting that Mississippi Today publicly apologize and retract the listed accusations, as well as publish full-and-fair corrections of the statements.

Bryant is also seeking compensatory and punitive damages and attorney’s fees in the case filed in Madison County Circuit Court. He has asked for a jury trial.

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