You can always tell that a news story has hit the mark when the subject of it attacks the source of the news rather than addresses the substance of the story.
Gov. Tate Reeves, through a spokesman, was trying to use that diversionary tactic this past week against Mississippi Today, the online news organization that has been doggedly pursuing every angle of the state’s massive welfare scandal.
Mississippi Today originally focused on Reeves’ predecessor in the Governor’s Mansion, Phil Bryant, but it has recently turned its attention to Reeves and his administration.
It has raised questions about the decision by Reeves and his welfare chief, Bob Anderson, to fire the attorney who had been hired to help the state claw back a chunk of the tens of millions of dollars that had been stolen or misspent.
It has exposed the rift between Anderson and State Auditor Shad White over the limits that Anderson wanted to put on the forensic auditors, who were ostensibly hired to corroborate what White’s auditors had initially turned up.
And now it has shown that Reeves — like Bryant — might have had a part in the improper diversion of welfare money to people with whom the Republican leaders were buddies or causes they supported.
In response to this exposure, a Reeves’ spokesman, Cory Custer, accused Mississippi Today of painting a fictional picture, calling it a “left-wing blog that prioritizes rumors and political games over journalism.”
First, a couple of words in defense of Mississippi Today.
The online news site based in Jackson is doing the best work by far of any media organization covering state government these days. It has a larger newsroom than the Clarion Ledger, which has all but given up on devoting the staff resources that it takes to cover state government in depth. The Associated Press’ bureau in Jackson tries its best. Emily Wagster Pettus, a veteran state government reporter for the AP, does excellent work, but there’s sometimes only her in the bureau and a lot of territory to cover.
As the newspaper industry has struggled and shed many of its best and most expensive journalists, Mississippi Today has filled the void. Several of its top reporters used to work for the Clarion Ledger or one of the other larger newspapers in the state. That includes Anna Wolfe, who has done most of the investigative reporting on the welfare scandal.
The Republicans have been taking a beating on this scandal, but what did they expect? When you dominate all of state government, when you call the shots on how almost all discretionary money is spent, when you run all of the agencies or appoint those who do, who else is there to blame? The Democrats in Washington?
Here’s where Reeves is not looking so good.
When he fired Brad Pigott, or directed Anderson to do so, it appears the motive was to keep the attorney from stepping on the toes of some of Reeves’ South Mississippi supporters. Pigott wanted to go after the $5 million in welfare money that was used to help construct a women’s volleyball facility at the University of Southern Mississippi. Reeves didn’t want that avenue pursued, for reasons the governor has been unable to convincingly explain.
Now comes a Mississippi Today report that another ridiculous expenditure of welfare money — more than $1.3 million — went to Reeves’ personal trainer to conduct fitness courses around the state to address its obesity problem. The main person getting fat on that deal was the trainer, Paul Lacoste, according to the auditors and those who funneled him the money. Besides paying himself an $11,000 monthly salary, Lacoste awarded himself bonuses of up to $25,000, purchased a $70,000 truck, paid his family’s health insurance premiums and treated himself and others to steak dinners — all out of federally provided money that is supposed to help the poorest of the poor.
Lacoste, as some other suspect recipients of the money have claimed, says he did not know that his grant came from welfare funding.
Some of those in state government certainly did, though, among them John Davis, Bryant’s welfare head who is waiting trial on corruption charges.
Two days after Davis met in 2019 with Lacoste and then-Lt. Gov. Reeves to discuss the trainer’s proposed fitness initiative, Davis asked one of his lieutenants to fund the project by covertly transferring welfare money through an intermediary. In a text message to the assistant, Davis referred to the project as “the Lt. Gov’s fitness issue” and said Reeves was “very supportive of what we are doing.”
A lawsuit authorized by Reeves after he became governor is trying to get that money back, but how vigorously the litigation will be pursued following Pigott’s firing is uncertain.
Mississippi Today is doing its job by putting Reeves on the hot seat. Attacking the messenger won’t get him off either.
- Contact Tim Kalich at 662-581-7243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.