Wednesday’s Piece: Mississippi’s Welfare Scandal.

Because yesterday’s News was so long, I decided to break it up into smaller chunks of the two different topics. The story of Mississippi’s welfare scandal below the break.

Okay,  we’ll do the local mess. As we touched on back at the beginning of February, there have been some shenanigans involving funds earmarked for the Mississippi Department of Human services concerning around four million dollars that were supposed to help folks on welfare but wound up in all sorts of interesting places. Some went to Christian wrestlers, some went to Gov. Tate Reeves’ election campaign, and some went to lobbyists and “consultants”.

 It didn’t really make much news at the time, as this was about when everyone started to realize the COVID-19 business would be taking up much of our attention. Well, thanks in large part due to some excellent journalism from Luke Ramseth of Jackson’s Clarion Ledger and Ashton Pittman of Mississippi Today, hoo buddy, turns out that wasn’t even the half of it. According to a study by State Auditor Shad White, a grand total of 98 million dollars that was supposed to go to poor families in the poorest state in the union instead went to buy cars and boats for politicians, scam jobs by third-generation wrestlers and Brett Farve actually doing something decent besides being a good quarterback. It also goes as far back as former Gov. Phil Bryant’s time in the Capitol.

 The money came from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, which allocated federal funds to be distributed to, well, needy families living in poverty with a particular emphasis on helping out poor children. Instead, it went in the pockets of lobbyists, politicians and what can only be described as scam artists. A million-plus went to lobbyists and “consultants” that was spent on things like putting on religious concerts apparently for the hell of it and vacations to fancy destinations (outside of Mississippi, of course). Former Million Dollar Man Ted Dibiase scored $1.9 million for his “Heart of David” ministries, who basically put on Christian wrestling shows. His two sons Brett and Ted Jr., also professional wrestlers but not quite having the same impact, were paid over two million for, respectively, the “Law of 16” self-help group and to provide anti-drug classes that were never given.

 It wasn’t all celebrities, either. Along with former director of MDHS John Davis, five other politically connected people have been charged with all six pleading not guilty. One example was Nancy New of the Mississippi Community Education Center, one of the two non-profit organizations listed in the charge. She’s accused of spending up to $150,000 on three new pickup trucks used by her and her sons. Over $650,000 was spent on grammar books and books on the Ten Commandments because that makes sense.

 On the very local front, the Family Resource Center based in Tupelo is also pulled into this mess. Full disclosure, I used the FRC’s services to hook up with my current psychiatric doctor and a childhood friend is an administrator there. As of right now, I can’t find what specifically part the FRC has in all this and I’m not going to bother my old friend, so there’s that there then.

 Perhaps the most egregious example of graft came in the form of $1.1 million dollars to former Green Bay quarterback and native son Brett Farve’s organization that’s dedicated to studying, quite naturally, the cumulative long-term effect of head injuries. Partly spearheaded by Bryant, Farve was paid that money to give speeches but it turns out he never showed. Credit where credit is due, though, he’s said he’d give the money back and had no idea anything shady was going on. Considering how bad his rep is these days, it’s probably a good move. At this time, no one’s heard what the DiBiase family is going to do.

 All of this comes screaming in on the heels of a very scandal-ridden Tate Reeves. His “Restart Mississippi” program, designed to help the state get back to work in light of the COVID-19 epidemic and over 200,000 unemployed folks, is looking pretty dirty. It’s come under accusations over the lack of diversity of anything but 17 rich white dudes, businessmen and lobbyists, which is one thing. Problem is, though, those rich white dudes were all contributors to various political campaigns Reeves has run going back to 2008, to the tune of over $330,000. The program has allowed almost zero oversight, which is part of the issue of the TANF program. That has almost no oversight with the end result being not only the aforementioned scandal but saw very little actually doing anything to help poor folks. According to a ThinkProgress investigation, only 167 of the 11,700 families applied for the aid in 2016 were actually accepted.

 One wonders if all of this isn’t the source of some of the animosity that’s sprung up between Reeves, his Lt. Gov. Delbert Hossman and the mostly Republican legislature. If you’ll recall, they’re all in a slap fight over who gets to decide where 1.25 billion smackers in federal funding to aid in COVID-19 recovery is supposed to go. Reeves has been on television daily claiming it’s his decision to make while everyone else is telling to go screw.

 This is noteworthy because the lieutenant governor of Mississippi has more actual power in the state than the governor, and Reeves was known to have burnt bridges and been considered generally sleazy and unlikable during his time in the seat. It should be noted he won against Jim Hood with the smallest margin of a Republican candidate since the two parties switched places, and this was three days after a rally held by President Trump in Tupelo.

 Again, the governor of Mississippi doesn’t hold quite the same amount of power as governors of other states, though it’s sort of like that across the board. In Texas, for example, the Agricultural Commissioner has more power in the state than the governor. Furthermore, the legislature here has always been very tight knit, even across party lines. I don’t know what it means for Reeves’ political future, but we’ll keep an eye. No one likes him as it is.

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