Home Blog Page 3

Welfare head pleaded guilty to federal charges one year ago. What’s happened since?


One year ago today, a former Mississippi state agency director stood before a state and federal judge and admitted to steering federal welfare funds to enrich the sons of a wealthy retired WWE wrestler.

The crimes represent just a sliver of a larger scandal inside a welfare agency that, under the direction of former Gov. Phil Bryant, systematically prioritized federal grant spending on pet projects over people.

“This is often what happens when you have a political party, whether it’s Republican or Democrat, so dominating a state that they think they’re invincible, that they can do anything,” said Doug Jones, a former U.S. senator and U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama.

Auditors accused John Davis, the now 55-year-old disgraced career government bureaucrat, of creating a culture of fear and secrecy at his agency between 2016 and 2019, frittering away at least $77 million in funds that were supposed to assist the state’s poorest residents.

But zooming out, records and text messages obtained by Mississippi Today show that Davis took his direction from the governor who appointed him. While the scandal took place, Bryant often met with Davis about the administration of the federally funded welfare grant and liked what the director was doing. Having agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, Davis is now a key witness in the case.

When the State Auditor’s Office and the Hinds County District Attorney first announced the arrests of Davis and five others in early 2020, they promised to work with their federal partners to fully investigate and pursue every person responsible for what they called the largest public embezzlement case in state history.

Since then, Mississippi Today has surfaced text messages showing that Bryant planned on entering into business with the Florida-based pharmaceutical company at the center of the initial indictments. The texts show that former NFL quarterback Brett Favre briefed Bryant about the funds that welfare officials channeled into the drug startup, Prevacus, and sought the then-governor’s help securing more grants for a new volleyball stadium at University of Southern Mississippi.

Six people ensnared in the case, including Favre, have alleged Bryant approved or even directed some of the spending decisions in question — allegations Bryant has denied.

“We’re still looking through records and text messages as we continue to move up,” Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens told reporters after Davis’ plea hearing on Sept. 22, 2022, months after Mississippi Today exposed texts between Bryant and the welfare director. “We also continue to work with the federal authorities in Washington and in Mississippi. John Davis is critical because the ladder continues to move up.”

No one in any position above Davis has been charged. Since the 2020 state arrests, federal authorities have charged just two additional people, bringing the total number of state or federal criminal defendants to eight. Bryant and Favre are not facing criminal charges.

Bryant’s attorney Billy Quin said in a statement to Mississippi Today on Thursday that Bryant has not been interviewed by investigators on the case.

READ MORE: Allegations against former Gov. Phil Bryant from Brett Favre, Nancy New, Paul Lacoste, Austin Smith, Teddy DiBiase and Christi Webb

The seven who have pleaded guilty to crimes within the welfare scandal remain free under cooperation agreements with prosecutors. The government has suspended sentencing until it decides it no longer needs the defendants’ cooperation for potential cases against others. Federal authorities have been silent about the progress of their investigation or who else they may be looking at charging. 

“It’s not unusual for their sentencing to be postponed until the full extent of their cooperation is known, and that could be trial testimony,” said Jones, who has followed developments in the welfare case from his neighboring state. “So this could be a ways to go before we see anybody being sentenced.”

The September 2022 federal bill of information against Davis — a charging document to which he pleaded guilty after waiving a formal indictment — represented the first criminal charges the federal government filed within the welfare case, more than two years after the state arrests. Charges against Davis mostly deal with welfare money he pushed to professional wrestling brothers Brett and Ted “Teddy” DiBiase Jr.

Federal prosecutors struck plea deals with nonprofit founder Nancy New and her son Zach New months earlier in April of 2022, but those charges related to public education funds that the News fraudulently obtained for their private schools.

In March of this year, the U.S. Attorney’s Office secured guilty pleas from Brett DiBiase, who went to a luxury rehab facility on the welfare program’s dime, and Christi Webb, director of another nonprofit that contracted with the state. It also indicted Teddy DiBiase, who pleaded not guilty, in April. It has not publicly filed new charges since then.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Mississippi, which has been handling the case, has not had a permanent U.S. Attorney at its helm since early 2021 and has been waiting more than a year for the U.S. Senate to confirm President Joe Biden’s nomination Todd Gee. On Wednesday, Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio again single-handedly blocked the Senate’s confirmations of all U.S. Department of Justice appointments, including Gee, because of the current criminal cases they are bringing against former President Donald Trump.

Separate from the criminal cases, 20 people, including Favre, are facing state civil charges. That lawsuit attempts to recoup $77 million from people or entities it says are liable for the misspending, which mostly occurred through two nonprofits running a program called Families First for Mississippi. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the federal agency that administers the welfare grant, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, has said that it will require the state to return any misspent funds out of its own budget, but it has been waiting to see what happens with ongoing criminal and civil proceedings before taking action.

U.S. Congressman Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi, said he has asked the federal agency for its assessment of the state of Mississippi’s fitness to manage these funds in the future, but he has not received a response.

“The fact that public funds were directed (away) from the original intent … is egregious, especially when the money is intended for vulnerable families to try to prepare them for a better life, and that money just does not get to them,” Thompson said.

Several people or entities named in the civil suit have pushed back on the prevailing public narrative that they callously looted money from the poor.

The DiBiase family, for example, says they were carrying out the mission of the agency when Davis hired them to conduct multi-million-dollar motivational courses or preach the gospel to low-income teens. Paul Lacoste, a fitness trainer whose company received a $1.3 million contract through Families First, says he met about his program with Davis, Bryant, and officials from the federal office, who all supported the concept of offering exercise classes as part of the welfare agency’s approach to strengthening Mississippi families. Lobaki, a software company that received $795,000 through Families First to conduct a virtual reality academy, says the vocational training it was contracted to perform fits the welfare program’s purpose of “ending the dependence of needy parents on government benefits.”

“It was the government that chose to run this program this way. And it was not a secret,” Teddy DiBiase Jr.’s criminal defense attorney, Scott Gilbert, told Mississippi Today earlier this year. “… So what this boils down to is do people feel like this was an appropriate use of TANF money or other money to carry out the function of government? That’s a fair question, and that’s a question that reasonable people absolutely can disagree about. But it’s not a crime.”

Ultimately, the federal government has given state politicians broad leeway to spend federal TANF dollars based on their philosophy about poverty and what constitutes helping people, including the boot-straps approach of intentionally withholding government assistance. Gov. Bryant, who oversaw the welfare department and set its agenda during the time the scandal occurred, preferred the “Families First” programming of parenting and fatherhood classes, bullying prevention, abstinence education and anti-obesity initiatives. But Bryant never asked the agency for outcomes to show what those programs accomplished or how they prevented or moved families out of poverty.

“You would think the state is the safeguard for handling funds like this, but when you have people who are the custodian of these funds at the state level who have unclean missions in life, then you have what you have,” Thompson said.

Over time, the purchases attached to those nebulous services morphed into things like a 15-acre horse ranch for former USM running back Marcus Dupree, the construction of a volleyball stadium, lobbying expenses, sports camps for young athletes and star-studded high school rallies. At the same time, from 2016 to 2020, the state cut the number of families receiving monthly assistance in half, from nearly 6,000 to 2,600, with virtually no concern from state leadership.

“There is a culture. Whether or not legally it rises to federal cases, and goes that high up, from a criminal standpoint, it may or may not. But it certainly is morally corrupt what they did and people ought to pay a political price for it,” Jones said.

From 2020 to 2022, under Gov. Tate Reeves, the caseload of families dropped another 1,000 while the state has left over $100 million in welfare funds unspent. Current agency director Bob Anderson told lawmakers last year that the state was still not tracking the outcomes for families receiving services through TANF subgrantees.

The criminal investigation may have halted the actual fraud, but so far it has made little difference to the very poor families seeking help through the program, or to Mississippians looking for answers about how things went so wrong.

When Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Adrienne Wooten asked Davis at his plea hearing last year why he would break the law to enrich Brett DiBiase, all he could muster was, “Very, very bad judgment,” followed by a long pause and then, “I shouldn’t have done it.”

Davis’ state guilty plea to 18 counts of fraud or conspiracy came with a prison sentence of 32 years — a fact featured prominently in news headlines — but that’s nowhere near the time he’ll actually serve. In the generous joint plea agreement between federal and state prosecutors and Davis, the looming federal sentence of no more than 15 years in federal prison on two counts supersedes the state sentence.

The deal all but ensures he’ll never face a criminal trial or see the inside of one Mississippi’s notoriously harsh state prisons. The other defendants received similar deals. Wooten seemed to leave the courtroom unsatisfied.

“Even with the questions that have been asked,” she said by the end of the hearing, “this court is still not understanding what actually took place and more importantly, what would’ve caused you to perform these particular acts.”

As the historic case enters its fourth year, the same could be said for the public.

June 21, 2019

Investigation begins

Mississippi State Auditor’s Office begins investigation into fraud at the Mississippi Department of Human Services

February 4, 2020

Grand jury indicts six people

Hinds County grand jury indicts six people — former MDHS Director John Davis, nonprofit founder Nancy New and her son Zach New, former professional wrestler Brett DiBiase, nonprofit accountant Anne McGrew and former MDHS procurement officer Gregory “Latimer” Smith.

February 5, 2020

The case goes public

Agents from the auditor’s office arrest six people, making the case public. The charges alleges they stole a total of $4 million from the welfare department, $2 million of which went to a pharmaceutical company called Prevacus. The venture involved both former Gov. Phil Bryant and former NFL quarterback Brett Favre, Mississippi Today uncovered shortly after the arrests

February 6, 2020

State Auditor and the FBI

State Auditor Shad White says he turned over all investigative materials to the FBI, but then-U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst says state authorities did not reach out to his office about the investigation and that he learned about the indictment from media reports

May 4, 2020

Annual audit released

The auditor releases an annual audit questioning $94 million in federal grant fund purchases, including $1.1 million New’s nonprofit paid directly to Favre

June 22, 2020

First known court action

Agents from the Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington filed a complaint for civil forfeiture to seize the Madison home of former professional wrestler Ted “Teddy” DiBiase. This is the DOJ’s first known court action in the welfare case

December 17, 2020

Brett DiBiase faces state charges

Brett DiBiase pleads guilty to state charges

March 16, 2021

Nancy and Zach New indicted

A federal grand jury indicts Nancy and Zach New on separate charges that their private schools, called New Summit, defrauded the Mississippi Department of Education out of $2 million, later increased to $4 million

October 1, 2021

Forensic audit released

MDHS releases its forensic audit confirming much of the suspected welfare misspending

October 11, 2021

McGrew pleads guilty

Anne McGrew pleads guilty to state charges

April 4, 2022

“The Backchannel” is published

Mississippi Today begins publishing its investigative series, “The Backchannel,” which, for the first time, reveals text messages between Bryant and Favre showing that the athlete offered stock in Prevacus to the governor in exchange for his help growing the company; that Favre told Bryant when Prevacus started receiving funds from the welfare operators; and that Bryant agreed to accept a company package after leaving office, right before the initial arrests in early 2020

April 20, 2022

The News face federal charges

Nancy and Zach New plead guilty to federal charges related to their private school funding scheme

April 22, 2022

The News face state charges

Nancy and Zach New plead guilty to state charges related to the welfare scandal. Zach New’s charges include funneling welfare money to the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation to build a volleyball stadium

May 9, 2022

MDHS files civil lawsuit

MDHS files a civil lawsuit against 35 people or companies, including Favre, to recoup $24 million in misspent welfare funds. On the direction of Gov. Tate Reeves’ office, the suit does not target the volleyball stadium or University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation

July 22, 2022

Brad Pigott fired

Reeves’s office and MDHS fire Brad Pigott, the lawyer it hired to craft the civil suit, about a week after Pigott subpoenaed University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation for its communication with former Gov. Bryant, among others

September 22, 2022

John Davis pleads guilty

John Davis pleads guilty to state and federal charges

October 3, 2022

Latimer Smith avoids prosecution

Latimer Smith receives pre-trial diversion, allowing him to avoid prosecution

December 5, 2022

MDHS amends charges

MDHS amends charges in the civil lawsuit, adding the USM volleyball stadium scheme and nine new people or companies, bringing the total attempted recovery to $77 million and number of defendants to 44

March 2, 2023

Brett DiBiase faces federal charges

Brett DiBiase pleads guilty to federal charges

March 16, 2023

Christi Webb faces federal charges

Christi Webb pleads guilty to federal charges, the first criminal charges she’s faced

April 20, 2023

Ted “Teddy” DiBiase Jr. pleads not guilty

Ted “Teddy” DiBiase Jr. pleads not guilty to federal charges, the first criminal charges he’s faced

The post Welfare head pleaded guilty to federal charges one year ago. What’s happened since? appeared first on Mississippi Today.

On this day in 1927


Sept. 22, 1927

Credit: Wikipedia

St. Louis native Josephine Baker became the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture. She played the lead role of Papitou in the French silent film, “Siren of the Tropics,” who, like Baker, found her true calling as a performer. 

The film’s success led to other starring roles, an autobiography, the creation of a doll in her likeness and even a toothpaste commercial. 

At age 11, Baker had witnessed racial violence in East St. Louis, “watching the glow of the burning of Negro homes lighting the sky. We children stood huddled together in bewilderment … frightened to death with the screams of the Negro families running across this bridge with nothing but what they had on their backs as their worldly belongings.” 

After working in some choruses on Broadway, she traveled to Paris, where she became the most successful American entertainer working in France. Picasso drew paintings of her, author Ernest Hemingway spent hours talking to her in Paris bars. During World War II, she aided the French Resistance by socializing with the Germans while secretly gathering information that she transmitted to England, sometimes writing the information in invisible ink on her sheet music. 

After the war, she received the Croix de Guerre, the medal of the Légion d’honneur and other medals. When she returned to the U.S., she refused to appear before segregated audiences, despite being offered up to $10,000 ($110,000 in today’s money) to perform. She fought to prevent Willie McGee’s execution in Mississippi, and in 1951, the NAACP honored her with a “Josephine Baker Day” and a parade of 100,000 in Harlem. 

In 1963, she became the only official female speaker at the March on Washington. She adopted a dozen children in her lifetime from countries around the globe. She called her children the “Rainbow Tribe.” She played Carnegie Hall in 1973, the Royal Variety Performance in 1974 and a revue celebrating her 50 years in show business in 1975. 

After rave reviews, she died unexpectedly after experiencing a cerebral hemorrhage. More than 20,000 attended her funeral, where she received full French military honors. 

Diana Ross portrayed Baker in her Tony-winning Broadway show, an HBO movie told her life (for which Lynn Whitfield became the first Black actress to win an Emmy for Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Special), and she was depicted in the TV series, “Lovecraft Country.” 

In 2021, Baker was inducted into the Panthéon in Paris — the first Black woman to receive this honor.

The post On this day in 1927 appeared first on Mississippi Today.

Gov. Reeves announces 11th hour plan for hospital crisis. Opponents pan it as ‘too little, too Tate’


After being criticized for months by his Democratic opponent for not having a plan to address Mississippi’s health care crisis, Gov. Tate Reeves on Thursday unveiled what he called “sweeping Medicaid reimbursement reforms.”

Reeves’ proposal, announced less than two months before the November election, includes pulling more federal dollars to increase Medicaid reimbursement to hospitals — a plan that Reeves’ own Medicaid administration advised GOP lawmakers and hospital leaders last year wouldn’t work.

Hospitals under the plan would pay an increase in “bed taxes,” but this would allow more federal dollars to be drawn down for a net to hospitals of $689 million, Reeves said. His plan also includes a measure to allow speedier prior insurance authorization of drugs or procedures, a measure lawmakers had passed but Reeves vetoed earlier this year.

Reeves’ plan does not include Mississippi accepting more than $1 billion a year in federal dollars to expand Medicaid to cover the working poor as 40 other states have done.

The governor’s plan was immediately panned on Thursday by supporters of Medicaid expansion and of his opponent, who dubbed his proposal, “too little, too Tate.” State political observers speculated Reeves’ new plan is a result of polling and of Mississippi’s GOP legislative leadership warming to the idea of Medicaid expansion.

READ MORELikely new Speaker Jason White says Medicaid expansion ‘will be on table’

Tim Moore, president of the Mississippi Hospital Association, on Thursday said, “Who would have ever thought donating $250,000 to a Democrat would have motivated a Republican so much?” He was referring to MHA’s PAC donating to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley.

Moore said he was appreciative of Reeves’ proposal, but “surprised by what was presented because they’re things we’ve proposed for years.”

“It still does nothing to help the low-wage earners in Mississippi who do not have the disposable income to pay for medical care,” Moore said. “What’s the difference in taking federal money to do this, and taking federal money to cover working poor people?”

Reeves reiterated his opposition to Medicaid expansion, which he referred to as “welfare,” as he gave a press briefing on his new plan, which would have to be approved by the federal Centers for Medicaid Services. Reeves said the plan was submitted to CMS on Thursday, and that approval or disapproval could take months.

“This will have a profound impact on the bottom line of hospitals across the state, large and small,” Reeves said Thursday. As for Mississippi’s highest-in-the-nation rate of people without insurance, Reeves reiterated that they need to get a job or better job.

“We need more people in the workforce,” Reeves said. “… I am focused on bringing better and higher paying jobs and providing opportunity for Mississippians to train for the jobs of tomorrow and have their insurance through their employer.”

READ MORE: Nearly half of rural hospitals at risk of closure in Mississippi, new data shows

Reeves’ proposal on Thursday was immediately blasted by his Democratic opponent Brandon Presley, who has made Medicaid expansion to cover the working poor with federal dollars a major plank in his platform.

“If Tate Reeves really cared about ending the hospital closure crisis he created, he would call a special session and expand Medicaid so working families can get the healthcare they need,” Presley said in a statement. “Tate Reeves has had 12 long years to do something about Mississippi’s hospital crisis and 47 days before an election is too little, too late for the hospitals that have cut essential services, lost jobs, or are on the brink of closing altogether. 

“Today’s announcement is nothing more than an election year stunt and just more proof that Tate Reeves is a craven, failed governor who will always look out for himself and his political career ahead of the health of Mississippi families,” Presley said.

Mississippi Democratic Chairman Cheikh Taylor (second right), State Rep. Daryl Porter (right) and Democrat supporters gathered at the Sillers Building to protest Gov. Tate Reeves unveiling of a hospital program, Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Other state Democratic leaders held a small rally outside Reeves’ office building after his announcement. They chanted, “Too little, too Tate,” and called for Medicaid expansion.

“Tate Reeves does not care about the $1 billion it would bring into our state or the 10,000 jobs it would create,” said state Democratic Party chairman and state Rep. Cheikh Taylor. “At the end of the day, Tate Reeves does not care. He cares about what his political position is in the final days of the election.”

Reeves proposal, if approved by CMS, would reimburse providers of Medicaid managed care services near the rate at which private insurers pay. It would reimburse hospitals for treating Medicaid fee-for-service patients at the upper level of what Medicare pays, higher than Medicaid’s normal rate. Hospitals would pay more in bed taxes to cover the state’s share of the higher rates, and lose some federal payments for treating uninsured patients, but would net an estimated $689.5 million, Reeves said.

Republican legislative leaders and the hospital association starting last year pushed a similar proposal to increase Medicaid reimbursements to hospitals, but were told by Reeves’ Medicaid administrators that it wouldn’t work — and would only bring in about $40 million — because the state’s rate of commercial insurance payments are so low.

When asked about this on Thursday, Reeves deferred the question to Medicaid Director Drew Snyder, who cryptically answered that the difference in projections this year versus last year is because, “We got the right people in the room.”

Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann on Thursday said: “Last year, around this time, our office met with Medicaid and hospitals to discuss hospital payment initiatives, but we were told by Medicaid that these changes were not currently possible. The Legislature then turned to alternatives … We are always happy to discuss long-term solutions to stabilize hospitals in Mississippi and improve access to care.”

Gov. Tate Reeves announces his plans for a series of Medicaid reimbursement reforms during a press conference at the Walter Sillers Building in Jackson, Miss., on Thursday, September 21, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Reeves presented his plan in a press conference flanked by several executives of the state’s largest hospitals. None of them spoke, and they were not made available for media questions in the briefing.

Gary Marchand is interim CEO of Greenwood Leflore Hospital, one of many small rural hospitals in Mississippi teetering on the brink of closure. Reeves, in his presser on Thursday, provided a sheet that showed Greenwood Leflore would receive an extra $10 million a year if his plan gets federal approval.

Marchand, contacted on Thursday, said he’s unsure how much of an impact the additional money would make, but he’s appreciative of “any efforts to provide additional cash resources in support of our operations.” He also added, “We are hopeful for a rapid approval process.”

Reeves on Thursday vowed his new plan is “just the beginning.”

“Our eyes are set on the future, and we aim to continue ushering in reforms that strengthen Mississippi’s healthcare system no matter where you live in the state,” Reeves said.

Mississippi Today reporter Devna Bose contributed to this story.

The post Gov. Reeves announces 11th hour plan for hospital crisis. Opponents pan it as ‘too little, too Tate’ appeared first on Mississippi Today.

‘Mississippi chose to fight’: Court overturns Justice Department efforts to overhaul state’s mental health system


A dozen years after the Department of Justice first sent Mississippi a letter detailing shortcomings in its mental health system, the state may have finally beaten the federal agency. 

A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that a district judge erred in determining that the Mississippi mental health system violated the civil rights of adults with serious mental illness and in imposing a remedial order that required the state to expand a range of services, from crisis response to supported housing. 

The Department of Justice sued the state in 2016, arguing the failure to provide mental health services that people could access in their communities resulted in them being involuntarily committed to state hospitals for treatment over and over again. U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves sided with the DOJ in 2019, and in 2021 approved the remedial order and appointed a monitor to evaluate the state’s compliance. 

The conservative three-judge panel at the United States 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned all of that. The panel found that the DOJ’s claim that adults with serious mental illness in Mississippi were “at risk” of institutionalization was not sufficient to prove discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“The possibility that some un-named individual with serious mental illness or all such people in Mississippi could be unjustifiably institutionalized in the future does not give rise to a cognizable claim under Title II [of the Americans with Disabilities Act],” Judge Edith Jones wrote for the panel. “Nor does such a vague and standardless theory license courts under the ADA to rework an entire state’s mental health system.”

In a statement, Wendy Bailey, executive director of the Department of Mental Health, said the agency would continue working to expand community services and decrease hospitalizations. 

Wendy Bailey, executive director of the Department of Mental Health, speaks to an audience during the Mental Health Meet Up at the Two Mississippi Museums in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, May 26, 2022.
Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

She said that over the last decade, the department has shifted legislative funding from the state hospitals to the community mental health centers. The state’s 11 regional centers are supposed to provide routine therapy and medication as well as intensive outpatient services for people with very serious mental illness. They also operate crisis stabilization units that can provide short-term inpatient treatment instead of state hospitals. 

The department plans to use federal American Rescue Plan Act  funds to continue expanding services. All of those funds must be spent by the end of 2026

Bailey also said the department would continue to share data on the new services, which had been required by the remedial order.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice declined to comment. It’s unclear whether the agency will appeal the decision. 

Megan Schuller, legal director at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, said other federal appeals courts have agreed that people who are “at risk” of unnecessary institutionalization can bring a claim under the ADA (the Fifth Circuit panel also cited those decisions in a footnote).

“It’s sort of a perverse approach, to say that… if you know that you are at serious risk of institutionalization, that you can’t challenge that until you’re already institutionalized and have suffered the harm,” she said of the Fifth Circuit panel’s ruling.

Are community services available? 

In recent years, the state rolled out additional mobile crisis services and intensive treatment teams across the state. These services are run by the community mental health centers, which are certified by DMH but operate independently. 

The most recent report by the court-appointed independent monitor, Michael Hogan, concluded that “foundational elements” like funding of services and data reporting were in place, but people were not always able to access care when they needed it and some still wait in jail without charges for treatment.

“The structural aspects of change have been addressed, but the system is not yet working for all people the way it should,” Hogan wrote.

Some of the data DMH has gathered so far indicates wide variance in services across the community mental health centers.

For example, some of the intensive treatment teams served fewer than half the number of clients they had capacity to treat in the first three quarters of fiscal year 2023, according to data Mississippi Today obtained through a public records request. One with the staff to serve 90 people actually treated just 36. 

The services are supposed to help people access treatment so they don’t need to be hospitalized through the civil commitment process. 

A recent Mississippi Today/ProPublica investigation found that from 2019 through 2022, at least 2,000 people were jailed without charges while they awaited evaluation and treatment through the state’s civil commitment process. Local chancery court officials and law enforcement said they wanted to place those people in crisis stabilization units for treatment, but that the facilities are often full or reject people because they are too “violent,” have a medical issue or need a higher level of care.

The state has expanded Crisis Stabilization Unit beds from 128 in 2018 to 180 today, with plans to open more.

Adams County Sheriff Travis Patten, who testified during the 2019 trial, said the CSU that opened in his area in 2021 hasn’t reduced the number of people held in his jail during the civil commitment process because the facility refused to admit them except in rare circumstances.

In late August, Lacey Handjis, a 37-year-old mother, died in Patten’s jail while detained there – with no criminal charges – during civil commitment proceedings. Her death is under investigation by the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation. 

Patten said the Fifth Circuit ruling was “disheartening.”

“I’m not pointing the finger at anyone saying it’s their fault, but I am saying that you are judged by how you treat the least of them, and this state can do a lot better in terms of the treatment that is offered and supplied to our mental health consumers,” he said. 

Advocates in Mississippi expressed disappointment with the ruling. 

Polly Tribble, executive director of Disability Rights Mississippi – the state’s protection and advocacy agency for people with disabilities – said in a statement that Mississippians with mental illness are still unnecessarily institutionalized. 

“If Mississippi was making improvements to its mental healthcare system, as the state has claimed, in conjunction with the order, why did the state feel the need to appeal?” she said. “Shouldn’t it be everyone’s hope that people with mental illness are receiving the care they need in the best environment for positive outcomes, no matter who is dictating it?”

Melody Worsham, a certified peer support specialist who lives with a mental illness and testified at the 2019 trial, said she worries that without federal oversight, the Legislature won’t be willing to continue funding expanded mental health services.

“My educated gut right now talking to you is that that’s what they’re gonna do in the Legislature: ‘We don’t have to do this anymore,’” she said. “‘The court case isn’t here anymore, so we can do whatever we want. I don’t want to fund that anymore. We’re just going to reduce the budget and you’ll just have to figure it out.’”

National implications?  

The Department of Justice suit in Mississippi was one of dozens of actions the agency has taken to enforce the “integration mandate” of the ADA established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Olmstead v. L.C. In that case, the nation’s highest court ruled that institutionalizing people and depriving them of the chance to live in their communities constitutes discrimination. The Justice Department has relied on that precedent to sue states to force them to provide community services for people with mental illness. 

At the Fifth Circuit, Mississippi argued that the remedial order “raises fundamental federalism problems by permitting the district court and the United States to micromanage a State’s mental-health system.”

Mississippi Department of Mental Health Board Chairman Stewart Rutledge said in a statement that those lawsuits had overstepped. 

“Mississippi chose to fight,” he said. “And we fought for our citizens who desperately need mental health services. Conversely, the US Department of Justice spent the last twenty years bleeding mental health systems nationwide in bare pursuit of a win. Mississippi took a huge risk standing up to this bullying, but with this victory, Mississippi – and the rest of the states – can put their full resources back toward serving our fellow citizens in need.”

The Attorney General’s Office, which argued the case at the Fifth Circuit, said the lower court’s ruling “gave the federal government the ability to dictate the way Mississippi provides mental healthcare to its citizens” and cheered its overturning. 

Joy Hogge, executive director of Families As Allies, pointed out that the district court’s requirements for the Department of Mental Health were substantially similar to what the department proposed. The state’s response to the lawsuit “was about Mississippi making it clear that the federal government can’t tell it what to do,” she said.

“That being said, there are more services in place than there were, and DMH has set up a system to monitor them,” she said. “I hope all that continues.”

Schuller, the legal director for the Bazelon Center, pointed out that the ruling is controlling only in the Fifth Circuit.

The Department of Justice could request a rehearing by all the judges of the Fifth Circuit.

It could appeal to the United States Supreme Court, but a loss there could have major ramifications for the enforcement of the ADA around the country.

“There’s a danger in any litigation and I would certainly say looking at the court right now, disability rights advocates and Olmstead litigators would oppose DOJ appealing that to the Supreme Court,” Schuller said. “I would certainly hope that they would not.”

The post ‘Mississippi chose to fight’: Court overturns Justice Department efforts to overhaul state’s mental health system appeared first on Mississippi Today.

Separate court in Jackson legit, Supreme Court says, but not appointed judges


The creation of a separate court system in Jackson is valid, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled Thursday, but appointing judges who would work alongside elected judges in the Hinds County Circuit Court is unconstitutional. 

In an 8-0 decision, the Supreme Court reversed and rendered the claim that the appointment of four special, temporary judges to the Hinds County Circuit Court was lawful. Specifically, the justices found House Bill 1020 violates the state constitution’s requirement that circuit court judges be elected by the people for a term of four years. 

“In short, reading the plain language of the statute, we find the new Section 1 judges are just unelected circuit judges, appointed into the Seventh Circuit Court District to serve three-and-a-half years instead of four,” Justice James Maxwell wrote in the majority opinion. 

“Even viewing Section 1’s language with a strong eye towards validity, we find Section 153’s express election requirement prohibits these particular circuit court judgeships, which are appointed for a term, and not elected,” the opinion reads. “Thus, Section 1 cannot survive constitutional scrutiny.”   

The justices who joined the majority opinion were Josiah Coleman, Dawn Beam, Robert Chamberlin, David Ishee and Kenneth Griffis. Justice James Kitchens concurred in part and dissented in a separate order joined by Justice Leslie King. Chief Justice Michael Randolph recused himself from the appeal. 

The law will create the Capitol Complex Improvement District court to handle cases stemming from Capitol Police arrests within the district and across Jackson. The law also directs the chief justice to appoint four temporary judges to work alongside elected Hinds circuit judges. 

The justices said there is no constitutional barrier for the chief justice to appoint special judges to the Hinds County court or any judicial district in the state facing “exigent circumstances,” such as emergencies and to address backlogs, according to the order. 

Paloma Wu, deputy director of impact litigation at the Missisisppi Center for Justice, said the Supreme Court read the plain language of the constitution and came to a decision that wasn’t controversial.

“I’m over the moon that [the plaintiffs] had their experiences as citizens of Jackson and Mississippi vindicated,” she said. “They are entitled to be treated just like every citizen in this state is treated. When the state constitution said you get to elect circuit court judges, that the constitution means the same thing for them as it means elsewhere.”

In the Thursday ruling, the justices also affirmed several aspects of HB 1020. 

The majority ruling dismissed Randolph as a defendant in the lawsuit based on judicial immunity, which is a legal practice that shields judges from civil lawsuits when they perform judicial acts. Randolph’s attorneys have argued his appointments under HB 1020 would be a judicial act. 

Hinds County Circuit Clerk Zack Wallace was also dismissed as a defendant. 

The majority agreed with Hinds County Chancery Court Judge Dewayne Thomas that the creation of the Capitol Complex Improvement District court is constitutional and that the Legislature has the authority to establish inferior courts like the CCID court as needed. 

Kitchens and King, however, did not agree with the majority’s decision to uphold the Capitol Complex Improvement District Court and that the Legislature had “a fatal constitutional deficiency” when it failed to place the proposed inferior court under the supervision of another constitutional court. 

“Upholding the CCID court requires one to resort to a mind-reading exercise in statutory construction—that, because a statutory mechanism facilitating controlling authority by the circuit court must be present and should have been enacted, we will simply pretend that it is present and proceed as if it had been enacted in the real world,” Kitchens wrote.  

“This fiction of convenience overreaches our judicial function and, of ultimate importance, our constitutional duty.” 

He and King also raised concerns about how people who are convicted of misdemeanors would serve time. Those convicted in the CCID court would go to the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, rather than a county jail, according to the order. 

Wu, who represented the plaintiffs, said the Supreme Court was right to require the CCID court to have appealability, but they prefer that the court not exist in the first place.

The Supreme Court ruling comes two months after justices heard oral arguments about the constitutionality of the law, and the appeal stems from a lawsuit filed on behalf of Jackson residents shortly after Gov. Tate Reeves signed the bill into law. 

HB 1020 was supposed to go into effect July 1, but it was paused through a separate lawsuit in federal court. The temporary restraining order blocking the chief justice from making appointments is expected to be lifted pending a written order by U.S. District Court Judge Henry Wingate. 

But Wu, who is representing plaintiffs in a lawsuit that has been consolidated with the HB 1020 case, said now that the Supreme Court has struck down the appointment of judges to the Hinds County Circuit Court, she has difficulty seeing claims against those appointments move forward in the federal case.

Wingate is overseeing another challenge to HB 1020 brought by the NAACP on behalf of Jackson residents and several groups, which argues that the separate court system is racially discriminatory and unconstitutional. 

The U.S. Department of Justice has asked to intervene in the lawsuit, which to date, Wingate has not taken action on. 

The CCID court may not be safe because it is still being litigated at the federal level, and so is the expansion of Capitol Police’s jurisdiction, Wu said.

UPDATED 8/21/23: This story has been updated to include response from plaintiffs.

The post Separate court in Jackson legit, Supreme Court says, but not appointed judges appeared first on Mississippi Today.

Ousted Democratic Party leader claims in lawsuit that he should still be in charge


Tyree Irving sued the Mississippi Democratic Party this week, claiming he was improperly ousted in July after 46 members of the party’s 80-member executive committee voted to remove him from his post.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Hinds County Chancery Court, asked a judge to prevent party officials from conducting official meetings, to reinstate him as leader of the party and to restrict current Democratic Party Chairman Cheikh Taylor from operating as the organization’s leader.

Those requests from Irving, which would require a judge’s order to be fulfilled, come less than two months before the statewide and legislative election in which dozens of Democrats are on the ballot.

“Plaintiffs further allege, based on information and belief, that Defendant (Cheikh) Taylor will continue to take actions, without proper authority, that will be injurious to the well-being and long-term interests and development of the Party if injunctive relief is not granted expeditiously,” the lawsuit reads.

The Mississippi Democratic Party executive committee convened a meeting in July and voted to remove Irving, a former state appellate judge, after Mississippi Today published emails that he had sent Democratic National Committee staffers. One of Irving’s emails, in particular, was filled with personal attacks of the state party’s No. 2 leader.

READ MORE: Mississippi Democrats vote to remove leader, appoint new one in wild emergency meeting

Party leaders at the time feared Irving’s comments would jeopardize a $250,000 commitment the national party had made to the state party during the key election year. So they voted to remove Irving from office and replace him with Taylor, a House member from Oktibbeha County.

In the lawsuit, Irving alleges that the meeting was improperly called, and he was not given the proper advance notice about his potential ouster that’s afforded to him under the state Democratic Party’s constitution.

Taylor told Mississippi Today in a statement that Irving is attempting to halt party business because “his fellow executive committee members held him accountable for his crude behavior and inaction,” and that he will not let “petty personal politics” distract him from the ongoing statewide election.

“The Mississippi Democratic Party is focused on moving forward, electing Democrats up and down the ticket in this incredibly important election year, and building a better future for our party and for our state,” Taylor said.

As of Thursday at noon, neither Taylor nor the 37 other named defendants — all members of the party’s executive committee — had responded to the complaint in court.

The case has been assigned to Chancellor Tiffany Grove, and she has not yet issued any rulings or set a hearing about the complaint. 

READ MOREEmails from Democratic party boss prompt calls for removal

The post Ousted Democratic Party leader claims in lawsuit that he should still be in charge appeared first on Mississippi Today.

Gov. Tate Reeves to announce his plan to help struggling hospitals


After two terms as lieutenant governor and nearly one as governor, Tate Reeves on Thursday is expected to make his first major proposal to address Mississippi’s health care crisis.

Reeves is announcing his plan less than two months before the Nov. 7 general election, when he’ll face Democrat Brandon Presley, who has made a key part of his campaign expanding Medicaid to help alleviate the ongoing health care crisis. Reeves also is making his announcement as more Republicans have warmed to the idea of expanding Medicaid as proposed by Presley, but opposed by Reeves for the past decade.

READ MORE: Likely new Speaker Jason White says Medicaid expansion ‘will be on table’

Details of Reeves’ plan have not yet been shared, though the campaign teased the Thursday afternoon press conference by calling it “a major announcement regarding investment in Mississippi hospitals.”

Tim Moore, president of the Mississippi Hospital Association, said the state’s struggling hospitals would be appreciative of any financial help.

“At this time I am not familiar with any plan the governor may be presenting,” Moore said on Wednesday. “Considering the ongoing desperation of our health care system, I am hopeful the governor has developed a plan to mitigate the health care crisis in our state. I am trying to be optimistic that CMS (the federal Medicaid authority) would consider a significant plan or waiver that does not include increasing the number of covered lives. With that said, the hospital industry will be appreciative for any financial assistance that can be achieved. Mississippi health care for all Mississippians is on a critical path if left unaddressed.”

The Mississippi hospital crisis — and potential solutions to it — has been one of the main focuses of the 2023 campaign for governor.

Mississippi is one of 10 states to refuse federal tax dollars to expand Medicaid coverage to the working poor. Brandon Presley, the Democrat who is challenging Reeves in the November general election for governor, has endorsed Medicaid expansion. Reeves, on the other hand, has long opposed expansion in the state.

Meanwhile, leaders in one of the poorest, unhealthiest states are leaving more than $1 billion a year in federal funding on the table with the refusal, even as people and hospitals statewide struggle. More than half of the state’s rural hospitals are at risk of closure, and even larger hospitals have been forced to slash services for budget reasons.

While Reeves and other GOP leaders have adamantly opposed Medicaid expansion, they have offered few other specific solutions, and none approaching the magnitude of Medicaid expansion. Reeves, when questioned recently about the state’s health care crisis, has said more free-market competition for health services would help, and that he wants more Mississippians to have good jobs that provide health benefits.

In 2022 legislative hearings, lawmakers and health officials kicked around other ideas in lieu of Medicaid expansion to help hospitals. These included eliminating or temporarily halting the state “bed tax,” which hospitals pay to cover the state’s share of Medicaid costs.

Moore said eliminating this tax would help, and that the amount hospitals pay yearly runs from about $185 million to $300 million.

Another idea was to switch hospital reimbursements for the Medicaid care they now provide from a rate based on Medicare to a standard “commercial rate.” In other states, such as Louisiana, this change has resulted in much larger amounts paid to hospitals.

But Moore said this move, implemented last year, provided little benefit because Mississippi’s commercial rates for health services are so low.

“We picked up $40 million last year on outpatient, but because our inpatient rates are so low, we didn’t pick up anything,” Moore said. “… There’s just not that big a gap between what Medicare pays and the commercial rate.”

At the 2022 hearing, it was incorrectly estimated that the change would provide hospitals about $360 million annually. That was incorrect, Moore said, because the commercial rates are so low in Mississippi. In Louisiana, which has expanded Medicaid, the change produced about $900 million annually.

The only way to make the change more effective in Mississippi would be to pay hospitals more for Medicaid than they get for commercial rates. Moore said it is not likely that the federal government would approve such a scheme.

Quentin Whitwell, an executive with several rural Mississippi hospitals, said he is anxious to see the governor’s proposal Thursday.

“It’s no secret rural hospitals are struggling right now and we need all the help we can get,” Whitwell said. “It’s obvious that some form of Medicaid expansion, even if it is privatized, would be useful. But any other negotiations with CMS or Health and Human Services to forgo bed taxes or get more supplemental payments would be great, and we look forward to seeing any solutions proposed and look forward to the opportunity to provide positive input.”

The Mississippi Hospital Association, which is supporting Presley’s candidacy, and most other medical groups and providers in Mississippi have long supported Medicaid expansion as a major step toward fixing Mississippi’s ailing health care system and helping hundreds of thousands of uninsured, working-poor Mississippians receive care.

The political action committee for the state’s largest organization of doctors, the Mississippi Medical Association, has endorsed Reeves. In January of 2023, the medical association released commentary saying it supported a “raise in the income eligibility for Medicaid,” which is the definition of Medicaid expansion. It also said “the Arkansans model” should be considered where the funds the state received for Medicaid expansion would be used to help low income people purchase private health insurance. The Arkansas plan was approved by the federal government as a form of Medicaid expansion.

When asked if the medical association still supported some form of Medicaid expansion after endorsing Reeves, Dr. James Rish, chair of the group’s political action committee, responded: “We look forward to further discussion and engagement with Gov. Reeves to address the many healthcare challenges in our state, including improving accessibility, affordability, and the overall statewide healthcare delivery system for all Mississippians.”

On Wednesday morning, Mississippi Today asked the Reeves campaign about any proposals the governor might put forth to deal with the health case crisis, which includes multiple struggling hospitals across the state in danger of closing and the highest percentage of unhealthy people in the nation.

The Reeves campaign did not respond to the Mississippi Today inquiry, but instead announced intentions on Wednesday afternoon to unveil his plans in a Thurday press conference.

The post Gov. Tate Reeves to announce his plan to help struggling hospitals appeared first on Mississippi Today.

Mississippi ambulance providers anticipate downfall of services amid hospital crisis


Mississippi ambulance providers fear a collapse of emergency medical services is on the horizon, partly as a result of hospitals discontinuing services and, in some cases, closing. 

The crisis has caused a decline in worker availability for ambulance providers and an increase in emergency service wait times, those in the field say. And with the rise of medical costs and stagnant reimbursement rates, finances are also a challenge.  

“Everything is working together and is causing this downward spiral of the whole system,” Clyde Deschamp, emergency medical service director for Mississippi Health Care Alliance, an organization aimed at coordinating medical activities within the state’s EMS districts, said. “It’s one big cycle.”

Hospital closures across the state are not only jeopardizing residents’ access to medical care but increasing interfacility transports – the transport of patients between two health care facilities. 

Emergency services personnel are transporting patients longer distances due to rural hospitals no longer offering as many services. Patients now have to travel farther to get the care they need.

He said to make matters worse, once the ambulance arrives at the receiving hospital, the crew may be required to wait up to six hours in the emergency room due to bed shortages before transferring care to the hospital. 

This “wall time” – the length of time emergency medical technicians and paramedics are waiting with patients before admission – prevents ambulance crews from responding to additional 911 calls, sometimes leaving a county area undercovered and residents with no assistance.

“Some of the more complicated transports won’t take just one paramedic but two. So, the problem with being stuck on the wall now is you have two people stuck waiting instead of one,” Deschamp said.

Clyde Deschamp, emergency medical service director for Mississippi Health Care Alliance Credit: Courtesy of Clyde Deschamp

Despite the demand for workers, fewer people are pursuing this career.

According to a recent National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians report, most agencies nationwide reported increasing turnover rates on average from 8% in 2019 to 11% in 2022. 

In addition, the report found from 2019 to 2022, nearly 66% of agencies experienced a decrease in job applications.

Deschamp said existing paramedics have stepped up as much as they can to fill staffing gaps, making it common for paramedics to work 80-plus hours per week. 

“Unfortunately, resource management – no matter how good – simply cannot compensate for a lack of paramedics to staff ambulances and a growing demand for interfacility transports,” Deschamp told Mississippi Today. “Regrettably, the situation may get worse before it gets better.”

Gregory M. Cole, EMS advisory committee member to the Mississippi Board of Health and former chief compliance officer at Covington County Hospital, said working with limited resources to provide service in an adverse environment “is killing the morale of EMS workers.”

Cole said paramedics are burning out.  

“They are exhausted,” Cole explained. “If you take a man or woman that has worked a 16-hour shift after running 12 calls, then at midnight have them take a patient six hours away. That is not safe for the patient nor is it healthy for the crew.”

At Covington County Ambulance Service, there are currently 70 employed medics and nine ambulances covering Covington, Simpson and Magee County, a roughly 1,010-square-mile area.

The ambulance service received a total of 10,000 calls last year – 90% were non-emergency and less than 10% were emergency calls. Non-emergencies included sprains and noise complaints, while emergencies included falls, motor vehicle accidents and respiratory disorders.

The number of hospital-to-hospital transfers this year for Covington County Ambulance Service as of Sept. 7 was 1,214, an increase from 714 in 2021 and 1,261 in 2022.  

The rate of patient transfers spiked for two reasons, said Todd Jones, director of EMS at Covington County Hospital. The first is staff shortages at the hospitals it serves; the second is the service added Magee General Hospital and Simpson General Hospital. 

In addition, the reimbursement model for EMS services is a problem, Cole said.  

Cole told Mississippi Today that EMS is reimbursed at a bundled rate – it is paid an overall sum for treating a patient instead of an individualized amount for different patients.  

He explained that even if he spends 12 hours taking care of a patient and $1,300 worth of medication to treat them, he is still provided one amount by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). And it usually doesn’t cover the expenses to provide emergency medical services, he said. 

Gregory M. Cole, EMS advisory committee member to the board of health and former chief compliance officer at Covington County Hospital Credit: Courtesy of Gregory Cole

Cole said the uninsured, underinsured and private insurances cover only a portion of cost.  

“This is equivalent to someone going into Walmart, getting $100 worth of groceries, deciding to only pay for $25 of it but still walking out with the rest of the groceries,” Cole explained. “Walmart wouldn’t allow you to do that, but somehow it’s okay to do that in ambulance services.”

Cole said without adequate reimbursement, EMS providers cannot stay response ready, attract the amount of workers they want and retain employees.

David Grayson, president of Mississippians for Emergency Medical Services, the state’s largest trade organization for ambulance personnel in Mississippi, said health insurers reimbursement rates vary by insurance type.

Nationwide, almost half of EMS patients are covered by Medicare, according to a 2008 American Ambulance Association study. The study found Medicare reimbursement rates for ambulance services are six percent less than the national average cost per ambulance transport.

In addition, uninsured patients make up an average of 14 percent of ambulance transports. Ambulance services experience almost double the uncompensated care burden as US hospitals and physicians, the study said.

Twenty to 40 percent of EMS patients are covered by Medicaid, which pays   “universally low” rates.

“The concern I have is, if our reimbursements continue to stay flat or have a slow increase while our costs are obviously going up at a steeper level, then there’s going to come a time where ambulances are not going to be available,” Grayson told Mississippi Today. 

The post Mississippi ambulance providers anticipate downfall of services amid hospital crisis appeared first on Mississippi Today.

Gov. Tate Reeves cost taxpayers at least $31,000 in questionable state airplane trips


Gov. Tate Reeves, in his first term as governor, used at least $31,000 in taxpayer funds to take trips on Mississippi’s state airplane to political events that don’t appear to directly involve state business, according to a review of flight records and the governor’s social media posts.

The trips in question range from taking the plane to attend partisan gatherings hosted by groups that have donated more than $1 million to Reeves’ campaigns to overlapping state business with campaign fundraising efforts.

The state’s Office of Air Transport Services allows the governor, other statewide officials and agency leaders to use the airplane for official state business. The purpose of the state aircraft is for a state employee to conduct business on behalf of Mississippi or to benefit the state, according to a policy listed on the Department of Finance and Administration’s website. 

While that loosely worded policy does not define official business or include examples of what type of travel is prohibited, the use of the state plane has long been scrutinized by elected officials and the press.

Before he was elected governor, Reeves was among those who raised questions about expensive taxpayer-funded trips. In a 2013 hearing, when Reeves was lieutenant governor and chairman of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, he highlighted questionable state plane trips to publicly question a policy at the time that gave state agency heads more flexibility in how tax dollars were spent.

“What we are now trying to determine is, has that flexibility been good for the taxpayers or has it been not so good for the taxpayers?” Reeves said at the time.

Since he was elected governor, however, Reeves used the plane for trips that could fall under similar scrutiny. As governor, not only does he have first dibs for plane usage, but he also leads the agency, DFA, that manages the use of the state aircraft.

Mississippi Today analyzed thousands of pages of flight records, obtained through a public records request, that span from January 2020, when Reeves took office as governor, through June 2023.

Several trips, most of which have not previously been reported, raise questions about how the governor has used the taxpayer-owned plane, the rules surrounding the usage of the plane, and whether the governor used the aircraft for political purposes.

Communications officials at DFA did not respond to specific questions from Mississippi Today on whether the agency has an independent process to review if the governor is using the aircraft for official business. 

Corey Custer, deputy chief of staff to Reeves, defended the trips in a Wednesday statement to Mississippi Today, saying they were “absolutely appropriate uses of the governor’s time and resources.”

“These (trips) are important to advancing the interests of our state and implementing a conservative agenda that has helped make Mississippi stronger than ever before,” Custer said. “Mississippians want somebody who will fight to defend their way of life and advance principled policy ideas, and that’s what Governor Reeves will continue to do.”

Reeves flies to CPAC

Graphic credit: Zack Orsborn

In August 2022, Reeves used the state plane to travel to the Conservative Political Action Conference, an openly partisan organization that lobbies for conservative causes.

Pilots flew the plane without any passengers from Jackson to Hattiesburg on Aug. 4, 2022, where they picked up Reeves, one of his daughters and Custer, the governor’s communications staffer. The three ate catered food aboard the aircraft and traveled from Hattiesburg to Dallas for the CPAC conference. They stayed in Dallas overnight and returned to Jackson the next day at a cost of $4,554 in taxpayer funds.

At the conference, the governor blistered Democrats, who had control of both chambers of Congress and the White House, for how they handled the nation’s economy. 

“Inflation is at a 40-year high, and everybody’s paying more,” Reeves said at the event. 

But before Reeves decried liberals making average citizens pay more for goods and services, he had used taxpayer dollars to attend at least three partisan events within the previous few months.

Flights to Republican Governors Association events 

Graphic credit: Zack Orsborn

The governor appears to have used the plane three separate times on May 25, 2021; Aug. 10, 2021; and May 23, 2022; to attend Republican Governors Association events around the country, costing taxpayers a total of $13,245. 

His August 2021 trip occurred when hospitals around the state were struggling with an influx of COVID-19 cases. Lee McCall, a Neshoba County hospital administrator, publicly pleaded for the governor’s help to deal with the surge in cases. 

“Hospitals and healthcare workers need you to help us,” McCall wrote about Reeves. “Where are you?”

Reeves’ office told the Clarion Ledger at the time that he flew to Chicago on a commercial flight, and prior to the conference, he was out of the state for a personal trip with his family. 

While he may have used a commercial flight to travel to Chicago, the location of the RGA conference, taxpayers still paid $5,692 for the aircraft to travel from Jackson to Chicago to pick up Reeves and his family from the conference before returning them back to the state. 

Unlike the bipartisan National Governors Association where policy is often discussed, the main description leading the homepage of the RGA’s website says, “The RGA helps elect Republican governorships throughout the nation.”

The RGA has also been one of Reeves’ biggest contributors. The organization dumped over $1.8 million into his 2019 campaign for governor, and it is widely expected to write more large checks to his campaign during the current election cycle.

Reeves did not promote the May 2021 and May 2022 RGA conferences on any of his social media accounts, and there do not appear to be any records available to independently confirm if the RGA events were the sole reason for the governor’s trip.

However, the RGA notes in a press release on its website that several governors were speaking to a radio host on May 27, 2021, as part of its “spring policy conference” in Nashville, the same time that Reeves was also there.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster also noted on his 2022 public schedule he was attending an RGA conference on May 24 through May 26, confirming that there was an RGA conference when Reeves used the state plane to travel there. 

Reeves flies to national anti-abortion group events

Graphic credit: Zack Orsborn

Reeves used the airplane on the public’s dime on Feb. 14, 2022, and Oct. 4, 2022, to attend events for the Susan B. Anthony List, a nonprofit organization that combines “politics with policy” by working to advance pro-life laws through “direct lobbying and grassroots campaigns.”

Custer accompanied the governor on the Valentine’s Day trip to Charleston, South Carolina, which cost taxpayers $4,807. The plane records list a “speaking engagement” as the reason for the flight. 

The governor promoted his appearance at the February event on social media, saying it was great “meeting and praying with so many of our allies at the Susan B. Anthony List Pro-Life Leaders Summit.” 

“Together, we’re going to save millions of babies and ensure expecting mothers receive the quality care that they deserve,” Reeves wrote.

The governor’s campaign that same weekend also recorded spending $305 of his own donations on “travel expenses” to pay for a hotel room at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, the location of the SBA conference. But the hotel later refunded the room to the campaign, according to his campaign’s filings with the Secretary of State’s office.

It’s unclear why his campaign, at least initially, paid for a hotel room at the conference or why the hotel refunded the payment. Reeves’ office did not address questions seeking to clarify the use of campaign funds.

Graphic credit: Zack Orsborn

The governor also used the plane on Oct. 4, 2022, to travel to another SBA List event in Dallas for a “speaking engagement,” which cost taxpayers $3,415. The governor, again, touted the trip on social media. 

SBA’s PAC donated $2,500 to the governor’s campaign on Oct. 13, 2022, and the organization has endorsed his bid for reelection. The Mississippi Republican Party has publicly touted that endorsement.

Reeves flies to Florida for Fox News town hall

Graphic credit: Zack Orsborn

On April 29, 2021, Reeves chartered the state plane to travel to Orlando, Florida, where he participated in a “Red State Trailblazers Town Hall” with Fox News host Laura Ingraham.

A Reeves aide accompanied the governor on the Orlando trip for a cost of $5,060, where catered food was also provided to the two.

Reeves joined Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts for the town hall with Ingraham to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic and other political issues.

During one portion of the interview, Ingraham played a clip of President Joe Biden’s 2021 State of the Union speech, where he called on Congress to address systemic racism in the country. The Fox News host asked Reeves to respond.

Reeves said he did not believe systemic racism exists in America. As evidence, he touted that while the nation was dealing with a wave of protests over police brutality after the murder of George Floyd, Mississippi experienced no violent protests. He attributed this to Mississippians’ pro-law enforcement sentiments.

“We’re not trying to defund the police like the far left, we’re actually investing in our police because we know we’re indebted to them for keeping our communities safe,” Reeves said. 

It’s common for public officials, including the governor, to give interviews to news outlets. But during his governorship, Reeves has commonly granted interviews to national news outlets like NBC, CNN, CBS and ABC via Zoom.

In-state plane trips paired with campaign fundraisers

The first-term governor also appears to have used the state plane at least 10 times to mix fundraising events with official state business, according to a review of social media posts, plane records and campaign finance reports.

While not explicitly prohibited in DFA policy, the governor’s travel habits reveal how closely his official duties have been linked with political fundraising.

For example, Reeves’ office on Oct. 5, 2022, requested to use the plane on Oct. 12-13 of that year for a “speaking engagement” on the Coast. 

The governor, accompanied by a staffer, departed Jackson at 1:45 p.m. on Oct. 12 and arrived in Kiln at 2:35 p.m. The governor on Facebook wrote that he participated in a ribbon cutting for the RESTORE Dock in Hancock County. 

While the ribbon cutting was official state business, his campaign account that day reported raking in around 24 donations from people who live in Gulf Coast towns, totaling $21,000 in contributions that day alone. 

Reeves and the staffer departed Kiln and returned to Jackson the next morning on Oct. 13. The total trip cost taxpayers $1,391.

Another instance where the governor might have overlapped fundraising events with official state business happened on May 16, 2022, when pilots traveled to Olive Branch in DeSoto County to bring Reeves back to Jackson.

The governor wrote on Facebook that he was touring the Ardagh Metal Packaging plant in Olive Branch, but his campaign finance reports show that around 34 people in north Mississippi donated around $37,500 to his campaign that same day. 

Flight records show Reeves’ office on May 2 requested to use the flight to travel to north Mississippi for “speaking engagements.” The plane left Jackson without any passengers at 5 p.m. and returned to Jackson with the governor and an aide at 7:30 p.m., at a cost of $1,771. 

Mississippi Today found at least eight other instances where the governor might have used the plane to travel to places for state business, and fresh campaign donations were recorded near those same places on those same dates.

The post Gov. Tate Reeves cost taxpayers at least $31,000 in questionable state airplane trips appeared first on Mississippi Today.