State Auditor Shad White’s close connections with former Gov. Phil Bryant have helped cast doubt over the independence and rigor of the state welfare investigation led by White.
Three former state auditors say they would have recused themselves or limited their involvement in the investigation into Mississippi’s welfare fraud scandal to avoid perceptions of conflict of interest due to current auditor Shad White’s close relationship with former Gov. Phil Bryant.
White and his office identified the misspending and possible theft of tens of millions of dollars in federal money meant to help the state’s poor. But Bryant’s responsibility in directly supervising his welfare department director and the fact that some of the taxpayer money flowed to people and programs favored by the former governor are notably missing from his extensive audit report.
White also faced questions early on — and criticism from the U.S. Attorney’s Office — as to why he didn’t promptly bring in federal authorities, who have massive investigative resources, particularly since the malfeasance involved federal tax dollars.
The spotlight on White has grown more intense in the wake of Mississippi Today’s “The Backchannel” investigation, which showed Bryant using private texts to influence his welfare director and try to broker a deal with a pharmaceutical startup that enticed him with stock in the company.
Bryant has since acknowledged that the content of his messages “doesn’t look good,” but while the auditor’s office has possessed the records for over two years, it concealed them from the public and has not made any indication it has further investigated the matter.
White’s relationship with Bryant goes back more than a decade. He served as policy director when Bryant was lieutenant governor and was his gubernatorial campaign manager in 2015. Bryant appointed White as state auditor, a job that has been a launching pad for runs to higher office, and supported him in his subsequent election.
Those connections have helped cast doubt over the independence and rigor of the state welfare investigation led by White.
“The rule that I lived by was if there is any question whatsoever, don’t do it,” said Pete Johnson, who served as state auditor from 1988-1992, and ran unsuccessfully for governor, losing to Kirk Fordice in the Republican primary in 1991. Johnson said under similar circumstances, if he had such connections to someone potentially involved, he would have recused himself or limited his role in the investigation.
“You’re not only jeopardizing your integrity but the integrity of the purpose you’re pursuing … Those facts raise the question of whether or not it passes the smell test,” Johnson said. “And when those facts are looming out there, you’ve got to back off and ask will my involvement jeopardize the integrity of the investigation … I think (White) is a man of high integrity, but you asked me personally what I would do and that’s it.”
Former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus served as state auditor from 1984 to 1988. He worked closely with federal authorities in the “Operation Pretense” investigation and prosecution of widespread county government corruption across Mississippi. Mabus said that given White’s ties to Bryant, he should have handed off his lead role in investigating to someone else.
“Look, if you’re going to give the taxpayers confidence that investigations are being done impartially and objectively, even if this one is being done that way, it’s never going to look that way because of their closeness, and nobody’s going to believe that punches weren’t pulled,” Mabus said.
“… I guess a similar situation would have been if I ever learned something about (former Gov.) William Winter, whom I worked for as governor and a little bit on a campaign and I was his legal counsel,” Mabus said. “William Winter is the very last person who would ever do anything like that, but if I had come across evidence, I would have removed myself. Especially if I wasn’t going to take strong action on it, I would turn it over to somebody else.”
Steve Patterson was state auditor from 1992 to 1996, when he resigned after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of using a false affidavit to buy a car tag. In 2009 he was sentenced to two years in federal prison for his role in a judicial bribery case.
Patterson said that were he in White’s position, “I would hope that I would have recused myself or brought the attorney general in to do the investigation.”
“Having said that, it’s a timing thing,” Patterson said. “You get those complaints that come in, and it’s what did you know and when did you know it. Knowing what we know now, clearly he should have recused himself and should be recusing himself now.”
Former Auditor Stacey Pickering, whom Bryant replaced with White, declined comment.
White as auditor has burnished a reputation as a hard-charging defender of state tax dollars, and was credited with unmasking a massive scheme in the 2019 welfare scandal. But some holes in the audit have since emerged, especially relating to Bryant’s involvement behind the scenes.
The Mississippi Today investigation revealed that the former governor assisted a company called Prevacus, which improperly received welfare money, and he was poised to receive stock in the company until White’s office made arrests and announced its investigation.
-- Article credit to Geoff Pender and Anna Wolfe of Mississippi Today --