Mississippi drops attorney investigating welfare abuse
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A former federal prosecutor investigating millions in misspent welfare dollars in Mississippi has been dropped from the case by the state agency that hired him.
The state Department of Human Resources will find a new lawyer to replace Brad Pigott, a former U.S. attorney recruited roughly a year ago to help recoup $77 million in welfare funds identified by the state auditor.
The decision to remove Pigott as lead attorney in the civil case was first reported by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit digital news operation that has reported extensively on the welfare scandal. Pigott said he was fired about a week 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 stadium, and included communications between the foundation and former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant.
“All I did, and I believe all that caused me to be terminated from representing the department or having anything to do with the litigation, was to try to get the truth about all of that,” Pigott told Mississippi Today.
Shad White, Mississippi’s state auditor, has said the welfare fraud his office uncovered amounts to the state’s largest public corruption case in two decades. He criticized the decision to drop Pigott.
“Firing Pigott is a mistake,” White posted Saturday on Twitter. He added: “Pigott worked well with my office, communicating regularly with us about the status of the case and how we could share information.”
Robert Anderson, executive director of the Department of Human Services, said in a statement that Pigott’s contract expires at the end of July and won’t be renewed, news outlets reported.
In a statement, Anderson said Pigott had filed “an extensive subpoena” seeking records from the athletic foundation “without any prior discussion” with Human Services officials.
“Attorneys represent clients, and MDHS is the client in this case,” Anderson said. “I hope I don’t need to explain that an attorney needs to remain in close communication with his client at all times.”
Mississippi Today reported that Pigott sent a draft copy of the subpoena via email to both the Attorney General’s Office and the welfare agency’s general counsel before he filed it.
Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, asked the Justice Department to investigate Bryant in connection with the welfare fraud case.
The congressman’s request came after a defendant in the case said in a court document that she steered $1.1 million in welfare money to former NFL star Brett Favre at the direction of Bryant. The former governor, a Republican, 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, have agreed to testify against others.
Favre 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.