Mississippi changes legal team to handle welfare fraud case

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The Mississippi Department of Human Services is hiring a different law firm to try to recover millions of dollars in welfare money that was misspent in the state’s largest public corruption case in decades.

The state Personnel Board on Thursday approved a contract for the department to hire the Jones Walker firm, which has about 370 attorneys in multiple states, the department said in a news release.

Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch, a Republican, also approved the contract for the civil litigation.

The move comes weeks after Department of Human Services leaders chose not to renew a contract with Brad Pigott of Jackson, an attorney in solo private practice who had been the U.S. attorney for southern Mississippi when Democrat Bill Clinton was president.

In May, Pigott filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Department of Human Services against retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre and three former pro wrestlers along with several other people and businesses to try to recover millions of misspent welfare dollars that were intended to help some of the poorest people in the U.S.

The lawsuit said the defendants “squandered” more than $20 million in money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families anti-poverty program.

Critics characterized the department’s decision not to renew Pigott’s contract as a politically motivated firing of a connected Democrat who was seeking information about people close to Republicans.

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves said in a statement Thursday that the Jones Walker firm has “the full-service capabilities to handle the sweeping scale of this case.”

“This work is just beginning, and it may take years — but we will follow the facts wherever they go and pursue it for as long as it takes,” Reeves said.

Pigott’s one-year contract with the Department of Human Services lapsed days after he filed a subpoena for records from the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation.

Pigott was seeking records related to $5 million in welfare money the university foundation received to build a volleyball facility, and included communications between the foundation and Republican former Gov. Phil Bryant.

In July, Democratic U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate Bryant in connection with the welfare fraud case. Thompson’s request came after a defendant in the case said in a July 11 court document that she steered $1.1 million in welfare money to Favre at the direction of Bryant. Bryant has denied the accusations.

The allegation was made by Nancy New, who pleaded guilty in April along with her son, Zachary New, to charges of misusing public money. The mother and son, who ran a nonprofit group and an education company in Mississippi, agreed to testify against others. Criminal charges are pending against other people, including a former Department of Human Services director who was appointed by Bryant.

Favre, who lives in Mississippi, has not been charged with any criminal wrongdoing and has repaid the money. He has said that he didn’t know the money he received came from welfare funds and has denied the auditor’s allegations that he was paid for events he didn’t attend.

Mississippi Auditor Shad White, a Republican, has said the welfare fraud his office uncovered amounts to the state’s largest public corruption case in two decades. He said July 23 on Twitter: “Firing Pigott is a mistake. From the beginning of this case, I said having a bipartisan team look at this case is important.”

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