The question that has been bothering me about the welfare embezzlement scandal in Mississippi is what motivated the alleged perpetrators.
I don’t mean the obvious: money. Of course, when tens of millions of dollars are on the table, and only a few hands have access to them, it’s not a surprise that people of questionable character might help themselves to some — or a lot — of it.
I’d like to know why certain people were singled out for a cut of the action. And why would some of the alleged ringleaders risk not only their reputations and prison time, but the good they might have done in the past, to do something so deplorable as stealing money designed to help the poor in the poorest state in the country?
During a teleconference this past week with State Auditor Shad White on the day he announced his latest bombshell in this scandal, I asked him about one of the more sensational findings of this embezzlement probe: namely, that $160,000 of welfare money was used to pay for former pro wrestler Brett DiBiase’s stay at a luxury drug rehabilitation facility in Malibu, California, and another $48,000 was paid to DiBiase while he was there through a bogus contract.
All of this, according to White, was done at the instigation of John Davis, the former director of the state Department of Human Services, and with the full cooperation of Nancy New’s Mississippi Community Education Center. Davis also at one point hired DiBiase and promoted him within the state agency he led.
Why was Davis so interested in helping out DiBiase? I asked.
White said he could only speak in generalities, as the particulars would have to wait for the pending criminal trials.
“A lot of people do things for different reasons. Sometimes it’s financial. Sometimes they really like a person. Sometimes that person is doing favors for members of their family.”
There was certainly a lot of favors being doled out in the $94 million, questioned by auditors, that was funneled through New’s organization and another nonprofit based in Tupelo.
Although the audit came in at a hefty 104 pages, White said it could have run over a thousand pages if auditors had spelled out every single detail in the exhaustive list of expenditures on luxury cars, make-believe jobs and consulting contracts, sports sponsorships and assorted other schemes that had little or nothing to do with helping to lift the poor out of poverty.
The accusation that New played a central role in what may be the largest case of public corruption in state history is particularly disturbing.
The Greenwood native had been somewhat of a savior for families with special needs children. She started New Summit School in Jackson to provide a learning environment to help kids thrive who don’t fit in regular schools, either because they have learning difficulties or social anxieties.
She expanded that concept, creating a handful of similar schools, including North New Summit in Greenwood. It’s been a great story here, not only because of its growth and success, but because it was created by someone who was giving back to the place where she grew up.
Now all of that could be at risk.
Initially, New’s group of private schools and Mississippi Community Education Center, the now disgraced offshoot, were portrayed as totally separate operations.
Not so, according to White. His investigators found that millions of dollars of the welfare money also made it to New Learning Resources and the schools that fell under its umbrella. The bookkeeping for New Learning Resources and MCEC was commingled, and there was an apparent effort to hide that the one organization with tons of money, MCEC, was helping out the other, which might not have been so flush with cash. Checks written out by MCEC to New Learning Resources, for example, were recorded as payments to American Express.
When New and her son Zach were indicted in February, they reportedly disassociated themselves from the management of the schools. It won’t, however, be that easy to disentangle the schools from this scandal.
It could potentially spell the end of them. If so, that would be sad for all those children and their families who found what they needed at New Summit, North New Summit and the others.
Nancy New has jeopardized not just herself, but them, too. Why would she do that?
• Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or email@example.com.