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Q&A with former Gov. Phil Bryant about Prevacus, welfare scandal

Text messages obtained by Mississippi Today reveal that NFL quarterback Brett Favre briefed former Gov. Phil Bryant about the flow of taxpayer funds to his experimental drug project, a deal that was shielded from public view. Bryant’s texts show he was all set to accept stock in the company called Prevacus hours after he left office — then arrests were made.

Before publishing Part 1 of our five-month investigation into Bryant’s involvement Mississippi’s welfare scandal, we requested an interview with the former governor to allow him to respond to our findings.

PART 1: Phil Bryant had his sights on a payout as welfare funds flowed to Brett Favre

After initially declining to discuss the investigation with Mississippi Today, Bryant gave a three-hour interview on April 2. He said there is more to the story than the text messages, which he acknowledged don’t “look good.” Some of what Bryant told our news organization in the interview below is contradicted by texts he sent.

This is Bryant’s first in-depth published interview about the welfare scandal, and his first time publicly taking responsibility for his role — which he describes in terms that suggested he was asleep at the wheel — in the sprawling misuse of tens of millions of dollars at the Mississippi Department of Human Services while he was governor.

The deal Mississippi Today scrutinized in Part 1 of our series involved Bryant, Favre and Prevacus founder Jake Vanlandingham.

Below is a condensed version of Mississippi Today’s three-hour interview with Bryant on April 2, edited for length and clarity. Mississippi Today will publish additional sections of this interview when later parts of “The Backchannel” series publishes.

Mississippi Today: You met on December 26, 2018, at Walker’s. Weeks before that, there was an introduction to Jake Vanlandingham from Brett Favre, and in the initial conversations, they offered you stock in exchange for your help.

Jake Vanlandingham said, “We want you to know that we want you on the team and can offer stock.” And you responded, “Just let me know. And we will call a team meeting at the governor’s mansion.”

You helped Prevacus in several ways over the course of the next year—like using your connections to help them find investors, like Joe Canizaro—

Bryant: One.

MT: And making paths to the FDA, like through Rick Santorum—

Bryant: I referred them to Rick Santorum because I wasn’t going to contact the FDA.

MT: You had a conversation with Camp Shelby, they were talking about bringing—

Bryant: It was military personnel, yeah. And I thought, well, that would be great to be able to help our military personnel.

MT: You talked about setting up a summit at the White House.

Bryant: Right. Well, let me be clear on this. There was a summit or discussion about a brain injury summit at the White House. And again, I thought, “Well that’s a great idea.” Maybe we’ll get Brett involved and have him at the White House.

MT: So going into your last month as governor, Jake offered to bring you on with ownership into Prevacus. You said you wouldn’t be able to until January 15th.

Bryant: No, I think I said, “Let’s, talk to me about January 15th.”

MT: “Governor, can we bring you on board with ownership now?”

“Cannot until January 15th, but would love to talk then. This is the type of thing I would love to be a part of. Something that saves lives.”

Bryant: Right.

MT: So what was the difference between January 14th and January 16th? Why couldn’t you do it until—

Bryant: I think the 15th was when I was leaving office. So, I didn’t talk to anybody about anything in business until I left office. People would come up to me and say, “We want you to be a part of our business. We want you to come around board. We want you to come in and join our firm.” And I would always say, “I can’t talk to you until after I leave office. I don’t even want to talk about it.”

So, I would love to be a part of something that saved lives, again, back to the concept of that, but not — here’s the important thing, I think the important thing: I never asked for, received, or wanted stock in that company. Never. Now, were they offering that? But people come up to you all the time and say, “Oh man, I’d like you to do this. I want you to do that.” And I try to be nice and say, “Thank you very much. We can talk about it later.” But if you notice, I didn’t take it. I turned that down. I could have, I could have said — OK, let’s say, I leave office on the 15th. Well, two weeks later I could have said, “Well transfer it,” whatever stock looks like. I’m not sure how you do that, but—

MT: Would that be appropriate?

Bryant: No, it wouldn’t be appropriate. That’s why I didn’t do it.

MT: Right. But I’m just wondering why you couldn’t do it until January 15th.

Bryant: I didn’t say I couldn’t do it until January 15th. What I was saying is I can’t talk to you until January 15th. I don’t even want to talk about it until January 15th. And then you can come in and talk to me.

MT: But if you had assisted a company while you were in office and then took ownership in it—

Bryant: Oh, it would be wrong.

MT:  —two days after you left.

Bryant: It would be terrible. That’s why I didn’t do it.

MT: In early January, Brett told Jake, “I think you should offer the governor a package that will get him determined to see it through.” On January 16th, Jake said, “I’d like to give you a company package for all your help.” You responded, “Sounds good. Where would be the best place to meet? I am now going to get on it hard.” So this came exactly at the time that you said you’d be able to, or that you couldn’t until. Can you explain that for me? And what does “I am going to get on it hard” mean?

Bryant: I think I was open to hearing what he had to say. But I had no desire to own stock. Now, “get on it” would be, “I’m going to get on an opportunity for us to come and meet. I’ll get on it right now.” My normal responses to everyone is, “Let me get on it. Let me check and see.” And I know this probably doesn’t sound right, but it’s just the truth. I would just say, “Fine. Come and see me. That sounds great. Let’s get together.” But he did call me, and I just said, “This is not the thing I want to do.” And I think the proof of this is I didn’t join them. I didn’t take stock.

MT: But from the text, “I’d like to give you a company package for all your help” and you responding, “Sounds good. Where would be the best place to meet?” My readers should not interpret this as an affirmative response, that you agreed to—

Bryant: No. I think it has to be balanced with, but I didn’t. So I turned it down. And I didn’t join any board. And I did not become part of their company. That’s the big part of it. Saying, “Oh, that sounds great. Let’s sit down and talk about it,” or “Thanks, come and we’ll discuss it.” Those are positive responses. But at the end of the day, I said no.

MT: It seems like there was an intention to, there.

Bryant: I understand. And look, I’m very open about talking to people. And as I said, I had a lot of people come and say, “We’d like for you to be a part of it.” And I always responded positively. But at the end of the conversation, I said, “No. Nope. This would not be the right thing to do and I’m not going to be a part of it.”

MT: So, you’ve been on contract with Joe Canizaro — he was involved with the project — to bring a client to Tradition since you left the governorship.

Bryant: Not to bring a client to Tradition.

MT: That’s his understanding of your contract.

Bryant: Mr. Canizaro can answer for himself, but I helped with the VA home that we brought in down there, working with the VAs of Mississippi. That was my biggest purpose. And working with the medical city, continuing to work with the medical city.

Editor’s note: The medical city is located at Tradition

But I don’t think after some initial discussion there was continued discussion about Prevacus coming to Tradition.

MT: My point is that in your last year in office, you were working with Prevacus to get them in a successful position, it appears from the text messages, so that they could be one of your clients when you went to your new consulting firm and Jake confirmed that to me as well, that that was the idea.

Bryant: Well, that’s his idea. You know, he may have mentioned something like that. And I kept saying, “You’re going to have to wait till we leave office.” Not knowing that they had received TANF money, I wasn’t afraid to explore it further, but again, once we talked, I realized this is not what I want to do, so I’m not going to do it. If I had all of that plans and if I had done all of this to do it, wouldn’t I have brought them on as a client?

MT: We’ll get there. Can you elaborate on (why you didn’t want to work with them)?

Bryant: It was more of my instincts, my experience, and just realizing, this is not what I want to do. I don’t want to own part of this company. I don’t want to work with this company. It’s not a fit for me. And quite honestly, the hope that they were going to be a company coming to Mississippi and doing remarkable things for people with brain injury seem to have faded.

MT: So that was the main reason for not continuing a relationship with them, was that you just didn’t want to, you didn’t think that they were viable?

Bryant: I really didn’t think they were going to achieve what I had hoped, which was to help people with brain injuries. It seems, as I said, it was just fading.

MT: How did you come to that conclusion?

Bryant: I guess looking at the fact that they had not moved forward. They had not come to Mississippi and set up shop. They had not hired anybody. They didn’t have large investors. So, it just seemed like it was still where it was. And I just said, “This is not something that I want to take on. I don’t want to own a part of somebody else’s company.”

MT: You mentioned you didn’t know that they received TANF funds and that’s a pretty specific fund. So, were you aware that they received—

Bryant: No, no.

MT: —state funds?

Bryant: No, I was not. I had no idea. And here’s the thing about being governor: You have to depend on a lot of people, the internal controls of every agency. So, my thought initially was, “How could this happen? How could someone in the agency not identify this? How could the auditor not find this?” And I know that I shouldn’t say that because the audit is just a big ole audit every other year, but you’ve got an assistant attorney general there at DHS. Surely they’re reviewing something. But you have to believe — and I tried to put in as much internal controls when I was state auditor. I kept going to the Legislature and saying, “We need internal auditors. We need more internal control.”

So I just did not believe. Now I could have missed signs that that was occurring because again, I was going a hundred miles an hour every day, and this was not at the top of my list. I had a special session that year passing the lottery and passing sports betting. I mean, we had so many things going on and then I’d get an email and I’d kind of quickly respond, “Great. Thank you.” And then I’d go right back to my meetings or whatever else that I was doing.

MT: But to go back to the concept of waiting until you left office to continue the relationship with them—

Bryant: Yeah. And then I ended it.

MT: Right. We’ll get to that part, but would it be a proper use of your office to aid this company’s development and then take them on as a client afterward, two days after leaving office?

Bryant: I don’t know. I think if they had not received state money, it might be. It’s something that I would have asked the ethics commission. And as we were working with Tom Hood, trying to find out, and my recollection was, not on this, but on a broader sense is if you haven’t, if you haven’t involved yourself in funding of that particular project, you can. But again, listening to them and then turning that down and then processing and thinking through it and saying, “This just doesn’t feel right. This is probably not the right thing to do.”

MT: But you didn’t come to that conclusion until when?

Bryant: He called me one day and I listened to him, sort of say, “We want y’all to come on.” And then I just never called him back. I just said, “This is not, there was a lot of activity.”

MT: Ok. It seems like the activity really picked up in December, once you were heading into your last month in office, there were discussions about the summit at the White House and “getting on it hard.” So it did seem like the plan was for you to take them on as a client. So I just want to make sure I get that point nailed down.

Bryant: There were a lot of programs that I was working on during that time. I mean, if you look at the lottery, I was working constantly with people in the lottery business. People were calling and we were trying to put it together. I didn’t intend on bring the lottery on as a client. I mean, I work like this with a lot of different groups.

MT: So, let’s go back to the beginning of your involvement with Prevacus. The day after you met with Jake and Brett at Walker’s, Jake texted you, “Thank you for all you’re doing for us.” Brett also said the project was “third and long” and they needed you to make it happen. And you said you would “open a hole.” What happened at the meeting? Why did Jake thank you? And what does open a hole mean?

Bryant: Well, I think Jake thanked me for have the meeting.

MT: —“thank you for all you’re doing for us,” what does “all you’re doing for us” mean?

Bryant: I think he, again, thought I was going to call a bunch of investors. He kept asking me, “Would you call investors” and I didn’t. And “open a hole” was just, sort of, a sporting response. You know, just “Let me see what I can do.”

I mean, there was no holes or people to block. It was just a response. “I’ll go open some holes,” a sporting response, a salutation, almost, a sporting salutation. “Thank you. I’ll go open some holes.” But I never called anyone or had any other meetings with people to come in and investors or planned any meetings with state officials.

MT: Well, like I said, about things ramping up in December, you told him about Joe Canizaro wanting to invest $100,000, so that is—

Bryant: There was one, Joe. And Joe once said – and I think he said it in passing and later said I wouldn’t have done that – but he said, “If they come here and set up shop and make it here, I would probably invest $100,000.” If, if, if.

MT: Two, three weeks after you left office, you did schedule a meeting with Joe Canizaro and Jake Vanlandingham at Tradition, so that Joe could talk about investing.

Bryant: I don’t think he ever came there.

MT: There was conversation about scheduling a meeting with Jake Vanlandingham and—

Bryant: I don’t know. If Jake would’ve called me and said, “Would you call Joe?” I probably would’ve said, “Yeah, let me get you two together.”

MT: I mean, you talked about meeting there and you said that if Brett came, it would “seal the deal” with Joe.

Bryant: It probably would have helped. You know, Brett had a standing with people that they appreciated. So, again, that would have meant, “Are you coming to Traditions? Are you setting up a manufacturing facility there?” Joe Canizaro wasn’t going to give him $100,000 to go off to Florida. That was not going to happen. But yeah, if you want to sit down and talk about what it looks like putting a facility there, I’m sure Joe will be glad to come and do that for you.

MT: After the exchange about “opening a hole,” the next day, Brett texted Jake the contact information for Nancy New — and they’d been talking for years prior to this about potential investors and who to contact for money — but it wasn’t until two days after your meeting at Walker’s, that Nancy New came up. Did you tell Brett Favre or suggest to Brett Favre or otherwise have anything to do with Brett Favre going to Nancy New?

Bryant: Absolutely not. Absolutely not.

MT: Why do you think it played out that way that he met with you and then a week later met with Nancy New?

Bryant: I have no idea. I think Brett and Nancy knew each other better than I imagined. Not in a bad sort of way, but I just did not know that they had a relationship. Now, there was some investment that she had, or was made, in the volleyball building down there.

But I don’t remember. And I would not have remembered him saying, “I’m going to go sit down with Nancy New.” If he had, again, I probably would’ve thought, “Well, Nancy New — she owned a school — maybe she’s privately investing in this?”

MT: You mentioned volleyball. Did you have knowledge of her contribution to the volleyball center?

Bryant: Somewhere along the way. And I can’t remember. That volleyball thing kept coming up, and popping up, and then it’d go away. “Let’s talk about volleyball” and “Here’s Prevacus” and you know, “How about an AD director at Southern Miss.” If you look at some of Brett’s texts, they were — and literally, I’d probably be standing behind stage ready to go make a speech trying to read through these things. So I would go like, “Ah, great. Good deal. See you later.” I mean, you just look at my salutations. They were like, I acknowledge, I got it. Try to be positive and moved on.

MT: A calendar entry from Davis’ email says that you and Favre requested the meeting with Jake and Nancy and John Davis—

Bryant: That’s not true. I don’t remember—

MT: —to discuss concussion research and the new facility at USM.

Bryant: Ok, who wrote that?

MT: John Davis. It was a calendar entry.

Bryant: I can’t help what other people write. But I would not have requested that meeting take place. Wouldn’t have gone to it. Now, could someone have told John I asked him to do that?

And that’s the other thing as governor, the number of things that people say I say or do, were astronomical. We would try to guard against it. We would literally tell people, “Now don’t go out and say I did it,” or, “Don’t go out and say I’m for it.” But they would anyway. They would just go out, “Oh, the governor’s for this. We talked to him, he’s all for it. He’s helping on this. He’s going to be a big part of this.” And it was just impossible for me to stop that kind of thing.

MT: The meeting was supposed to take place in Jackson, according to the calendar entry, but there was bad weather. They couldn’t fly into Jackson. And so, Nancy New and John Davis drove down to Hattiesburg that day and met at Brett Favre’s house.

Bryant: I don’t know.

MT: You didn’t have any conversations with Nancy New or John Davis about—

Bryant: What day was that on?

MT: January 2nd, 2019.

Bryant: No, I did not know they were driving down. Didn’t know there was bad weather. Didn’t know anybody couldn’t fly here. Here’s the other thing that happens to you when your governor, you’re running a hundred miles an hour, and somebody sees you at an event or going to the car. And I used to tell them, “Please don’t tell me something in the elevator. Don’t follow me out the building.” My staff would do that. Cause I’d say “I can’t remember that. I can’t process it.” And so people would come up and go like, “You know, I’m going down to Hattiesburg next week. We’re going to talk about that thing.” And you’re like, “OK.”

MT: I think it was kind of a last-minute deal because of the weather. So, just to be really careful about the question: you’re saying that you didn’t have a conversation with New or Davis about this meeting.

Bryant: No.

MT: So, your welfare director just got up during the workday and left his office and went to Hattiesburg and you didn’t have any idea?

Bryant: He traveled a good bit. So, no, I did not instruct him to go and do that. I would not have done that. No, that did not happen.

MT: The day after the January 2nd meeting, Jake sent you a text that said, “Governor, we had a great meeting with Nancy New and John Davis. We are excited to be working together. Thanks.” You responded, “Very good.” Tell me more about what you meant by that and what was going through your head?

Bryant: I think, again, that was just my response, quickly reading that and just responding, “Very good.” Not thinking through it, not properly processing it. I probably should have caught that. And I just didn’t. But again, looking back under the environment that we have now, people talking to Nancy New and to John Davis about healthcare would not have been stunning. I mean, it would not have been something that I would have said, “Well, gosh, that just shouldn’t be happening.”

MT: I mean, her nonprofit was called Mississippi Community Education Center and DHS is not Medicaid or the Health Department—

Bryant: Right. But again, I’m not justifying it. I’m just saying it would not have been something to shock my senses that they had met. Now, I do not remember that. I didn’t condone that. I didn’t authorize that. But reading that text would not have shocked my senses, that they had met with John Davis.

Again, I have to depend on the internal controls. So, when someone says, “I’m going to go get money, or I think I’m going to do this,” I can’t stop and say, “Oh, I’m going to go independently investigate that.” I have to say, “Well, if they all are, and a lot of people get money from the state of Mississippi, if they are, I’m sure someone is making sure that it’s done properly.” I’m sure that there’s very careful internal controls. Particularly like TANF money, how do you not fill out federal applications and turn them in and have them overseen by a number of people?

MT: You were auditor. So, you know how lax TANF is. It’s reputation.

Bryant: I don’t remember that to be true.


Bryant: I’ve always believed that federal money was very difficult to spend outside of the particular categories, outside of reporting. Whatever I would have received, I would have believed, well, somebody is certainly going to make sure that this was legal and proper.

MT: So, “working together,” you didn’t have an idea in your mind about what that meant when you read the text.

Bryant: No.

MT: Why would your welfare director have been in those meetings with Prevacus about an investment?

Bryant: Again, I’m not certain. I couldn’t tell you what he was doing there. All I can tell you is I didn’t tell him to be there. But again, you’re right, it’s Human Services, but I may have thought more about internal controls than I should have, or believing they were better than they should have been, but I had a great dependence on people doing the right thing.

So whatever was said or done, I would say, “Well, certainly.” And occasionally I would tell my staff, “Let’s all make sure they’re doing everything that they’re supposed to be doing and doing it right.” Because people would text and email me on the most random of things.

MT: Based on your knowledge as former auditor, which audited DHS, would DHS money going to Prevacus be a proper use of DHS funding?

Bryant: I don’t know, because I’d have to see what the current rules are about that. And I just haven’t looked at that in many years.

MT: But to a private company, for development of a product—

Bryant: Yeah, aren’t there private companies that TANF money goes to, I believe. Don’t they go to—

MT: Private corporations?

Bryant: Don’t they go to like child care, I mean like private childcare.

MT: That’s CCDF, I think that’s the child care (voucher) fund you’re thinking of.

Bryant: And if it had not, I would have believed that somebody would’ve stopped it. You see, if they get to the point to where they say, “Well, I want private money.” Someone, those thousands of people in the organizations below me, should’ve said, “Hold it, hold it.” And there’s nobody in government that could have gone around that and said, “Do it anyway. I don’t care that the rules say no, do it anyway.”

But think about this now, Anna, if I had set all of this up like this, would I, in the middle of this, call the state auditor and said, “Come in and begin this review”? Would I have hired the SAC (Special Agent in Charge) of the FBI to come in and run a state agency? If I thought, “Well, something’s going wrong here, and I’m a part of it, but I’m going to have the SAC come in and run the shop.” I mean, come on. That just doesn’t make good sense.

Now, did I miss that? Should I have caught that? Probably so. But you just have to understand in the government and as a governor in that environment, it is so busy and so hectic. It is just hard to follow every email and every text and everything people tell you and how they come by and suggest something to you and then they leave and then they go tell people, “Oh I told him about that. Yeah, he got it.” There’s a lot of things that go on.

MT: A couple of weeks after the meeting at Brett Favre’s house, between Jake and Nancy and John Davis, Jake texted you, “Governor, I’m working with Nancy New on our phase 1A funding,” among other project updates and you responded, “Great report. We will get this done.” Did you have any thoughts —

Bryant: I have no idea what that is.

MT: –about that when you saw it, or why would he be talking to you about Nancy New?

Bryant: Again, I probably were wrong in doing it, but my standard reply was that very positive response — “good,” “great” — but I did not thoroughly process that. And I should have caught it. But I was just–

MT: Yeah. So, days later, New made the first payment to Prevacus using welfare money. And then a week or two after that, Favre texted you, “We couldn’t be more happy about the funding from the State of Mississippi. In fact, Nancy New is going to meet with Joe at Tradition the following week.”

Bryant: And again, I should’ve caught that and I just simply didn’t.

MT: But it wouldn’t be fair to say that you didn’t know that Nancy New was funding Prevacus after those texts, or that Prevacus was receiving funds from the state of Mississippi.

Bryant: I would not have known it. As a matter of fact, I mean, I just simply did not carefully look at those texts and realize the intent in them. And I know that’s hard to believe and I know people will read it and say, “Well, of course he knew.” But I’m telling you, I just did not realize the details within those texts.

MT: Even as former auditor.

Bryant: Even as a former auditor. Again, I had such faith in the controls within government. How would she have done that? I mean, my thought process would have been, if I had thought through that, well, “How could that happen?” Or is it from her foundation or something? I just, I didn’t properly process or catch that. And I wish I had. I wish I had said more about, well, “Tell me more about this.” 

He (Brett Favre) keeps using, “Nancy New.” I mean, I guess that was one thing that was a little bit confusing. Not DHS or TANF or anything; it’s just, “Nancy New is doing this and Nancy New is doing that.” And I just was so extremely busy, somehow I missed that clue.

MT: So, are you saying that you didn’t know that public funds went to Prevacus?

Bryant: No, I did not know that public funds were being used for that purpose.

MT: Even though Brett Favre said funds from the “state of Mississippi”?

Bryant: I did not know that.

MT: Hm.

Bryant: I know. I know. I just missed that, clearly, able to process it, and able to say, “Let me stop and go find out what this is about.” And I know, Anna, it looks that way and it’s troubling to me. But the day that that article came out, I was absolutely shocked to know that TANF dollars had gone for that purpose.

MT: But even if it was other DHS funds.

Bryant: Even if it were other DHS funds. But how does that happen? I mean how does it get through all of the system to go to them and not be here in Mississippi? 

MT: The other thing I don’t understand is, this was official state business. This was public money going to this private corporation that you were getting updates on, and it was all happening outside of the public view. 

Bryant: Well, I wouldn’t have thought that because again, it had to be happening within the Department of Human Services. Wouldn’t the money have to come from the Department of Human Services into Nancy New’s nonprofit?

MT: It did.

Bryant: Wouldn’t there be an attorney general, an internal, someone who writes the checks, who sends them over there that would be saying, “What are we doing sending $2 million to Nancy New?” 

MT: I mean, they sent $60 million to Nancy New and they didn’t require her to send anything back to the department saying how she was spending the money.

Bryant: And that is tragic. And if I remember — and I read this in the newspaper — the second transfer took place when Chris (Freeze) was director.

MT: Correct. Not the second one, but there were ones that–

Bryant: I’m trying to get the FBI director in there to stop things from going on, and they’re still going on. They’re still happening. I’m sure Chris did everything in the world that he could, but you say, “out of view.” Here’s the former “SAC” of the FBI sitting there running the agency. That’s not out of view. 

MT: I’m talking about the state investment in Prevacus, and it was represented as a state investment on proposals that your office received as well.

Bryant: What proposals?

MT: There was a proposal — Clarion Ledger has reported it — a proposal sent to your office in December of 2019, where funding sources, DHS is listed. 

Bryant: Oh no, I think that’s a slide program that he brought to the dinner, if I remembered the reporting correctly. And it says the Department of Health and Human Services. We don’t have a Department of Health and Human Services.

MT: The funding is from HHS. So, he was talking about the state’s health and human services department. HHS is the federal agency that funds DHS.

Bryant: Well you can say that, but it said the Department of Health and Human Services. And oh, by the way, if you’ve ever been to a dinner where somebody is showing slides, I don’t even think that took place. It’s not like you — I’m sorry, but I don’t follow every slide that somebody shows at a dinner. I think I had someone print it off, but I don’t remember those set of slides that night at the dinner. 

Editor’s note: Bryant asked his assistant to print this proposal for him in December of 2019, a full year after the dinner Bryant mentioned and about six weeks before he left office.

MT: OK. So I’m aware that you say that your discussions with Prevacus were about encouraging the company to locate in Mississippi — a normal process that–

Bryant: And again, the concept of helping people who are suffering from brain injuries. That was bigger to me than the company. 

MT: Right. But this is a normal process that usually includes some sort of state incentives to lure a company.

Bryant: Could, could not. Depends on the number of jobs, that type of thing.

MT: So this was an economic development project. Brett Favre has said that to me before. I’m wondering what the state incentives were in this case. What did you think that they were? 

Bryant: I had no idea because we had not gotten to that point. But here’s another thing: As governor, had I wanted to give money to them, had I thought, “I’m going to do that.” I could have found money within MDA. I could have said, “This is an economic development project. Let’s give them a million dollars.” And the ability for a governor to help move money around at MDA is much easier than federal money or state money from Human Services. So if my goal was to give them money, I could have gone over to MDA and said, “I think it’s going to be a really good business, why don’t we give them a million dollars, let them build a building and we get started.” 

MT: Yeah, that leads into my next question, which is: In all the conversations you were having with Jake and Brett Favre, you were representing yourself as being a helpful person, right? Being a helpful governor, trying to get this company here. Why didn’t you–

Bryant: I did so many.

MT: Why didn’t you refer– and you also said that you always directed people who came to you with funding requests to the appropriate agency. The appropriate agency in this case would have been MDA.

Bryant: Because I couldn’t, I did not process properly or did not recognize properly that they were trying to get money from Human Services. And if I did, I would have said, “Well they can’t do that. That’s not going to happen.” Because you just can’t go in and get money from DHS. They’re just, there’s going to be too many controls in place to allow that to happen. I would have attested, or rested on the surety that there’s internal control somewhere. Did I miss a lot? Absolutely I missed some. And again, my responses are: “Very good. Sounds good. I’ll get back.” I, honestly, Anna, I was not thinking about that. I was not dwelling on that. It was not at the top of my list. I would read through, briefly read through these emails, put a positive salutation on it and move on.

And again, you know, you can, we can make it look like that. But think about the alternative. Think if I really wanted to do these things, MDA money would have been so easy to obtain.

MT: Why didn’t you refer Prevacus to MDA if you wanted them brought to Mississippi?

Bryant: Because they were just not at the right moment for an economic development project. If they went down to Traditions and said, “OK, we’re ready to go. We’re going to hire 35 people and we’re going to build a building over there.” Then I would have said, “Oh, well, let’s bring in (MDA).” The dinner we had that night was sponsored by the South Mississippi Planning and Development District. They’re the economic developers down there. So (they) go out and seek economic development opportunities. They go and try to find them. So they came and I never contacted MDA because I didn’t plan on giving any MDA incentives to them. They had not reached that threshold. 

MT: Did Prevacus ever give you projections saying how many jobs they would bring to Mississippi?

Bryant: I don’t remember that they did. They may have. Again, this was not the top of my list. This was not something I was, obviously, paying a lot of attention to.

MT: So going back to after you left office, on January 16, and he said, you know, “Now that you’re unemployed, we’d like to bring you on board.” And you said, “Sounds good.” There were several exchanges after that talking about where to meet, back and forth. There was a conference call at one point with Poncho James. What was discussed on that call? 

Bryant: He discussed basically about, “Could y’all come in and help us as an agency? We need some work with, uh, maybe FDA or EPA.” And I just said, “Look, that sounds like something that we might be interested in, but let’s think about it. You’re just going to have to come and sit down with us and to talk about this further.”

MT: And Jake told Poncho that his intention was to cut you an equity deal to join Prevacus. 

Bryant: Well, I did not do it. He didn’t say he did. At the end of the conversation, he said, “And oh by the way we need to talk about some stock.” And I just said, “Well, you know, we’ll get together later on.” And I never called him back. 

MT: I mean, this is really serious. It appears as if you’ve helped this company along in your last year in office–

Bryant: I understand, I understand. 

MT: –and then answered affirmatively when asked about taking stock. 

Bryant: Yeah.

MT: And the fact that you never did is because those arrests were made before you were able to meet to “seal the deal.”

Bryant: No, no, no, no. I had time in between there. Give me some dates.

MT: After the arrests in early 2020, you texted Jake about his company’s involvement in the scandal. So, that was on February 5th. Right? February 4th was when you scheduled the meeting at Tradition with Jake Vanlandingham and Joe Canizaro. And if Brett Farve goes, it would “seal the deal.”

Bryant: I’m not sure that was ever scheduled.

MT: It was scheduled by text.

Bryant: OK. 

MT: I mean, it was agreed upon by text on February 4th. (You didn’t go) because on February 5th, the arrests were made. It wasn’t scheduled for February 4th. I’m saying February 4th was the day that they agreed to meet on a later date.

Bryant: So when were the arrests made?

MT: February 5th. 

Bryant: OK, and I go out of office January — 15th?

MT: 15th.

Bryant: OK. So I’ve got two weeks to say, “Send me the stock. Let me sign an agreement. I want to be part of your company.” And I didn’t. I mean, if I was going to do that, why wouldn’t I, on the 16th, say, “Send me the stock. Let’s get this right now.” Or the day that he called me, say, “Yep, I’m in. Let’s go ahead and send me the documentation.”

MT: It does sound like there were some scheduling mishaps. So there was talk of meeting and then, oh, you know, a flight issue or something. And then there was a conference call. The conference calls is the next, you know, virtual meeting with Jake Vanlandingham. So I’m imagining that that kind of documentation wouldn’t be finalized until you met again. And there was not an opportunity to meet again.

Bryant: Well imagining could be dangerous because I remember at some points they called again and I just said, “I’m not going to meet with them.” Now, that was just a conversation. And I may be able to find that text. I think it was my administrative assistant.

MT: Right. 

Bryant: But that was before the arrest. And I just said, “I don’t want to meet with him anymore.” I had made my mind up.

MT: If that exists, I would really like to see it because on February 4th, you were talking about meeting and then on February 5th, the arrests happened. And that derailed–

Bryant: Well that changed a lot. 

MT: Of course. It derailed the meeting and the arrangement.

Bryant: It’s a good thing I brought the state auditor in to make those arrests or to help investigate that. You see, those arrests would have not been made, more than likely, if I had not brought the state auditor in. 

MT:  But you didn’t know about anything dealing with Prevacus? 

Bryant: No, I didn’t until I read it in the paper. That surprised me completely.

MT: I don’t think you can say that you didn’t know anything about Prevacus and take credit for launching the investigation at the same time. 

Bryant: Well it does not make sense that if I thought I was doing something wrong — and that would have been wrong, if they had gotten state money and I had realized it — to call the auditor in and begin an investigation and then at the same time carry on this nefarious affair. You see how conflicting that would be? And then bring in the FBI agent to run the agency? Why on earth would I do that? Let me tell you what I could have done — and I would have never done this — but I could have said, “Let’s hire somebody that’s a good ole boy friend of mine and he’ll make sure none of this ever comes to light.” And I won’t even call the state auditor. Whatever that this guy brought up, I’ll say, “Ah, let’s work through that and just see if we can’t get past this.” I didn’t do that. That’s what somebody would have done that had the plan to do what you think I did. 

Now I can clearly see why you’re following those trails. And it doesn’t look good. Should I have caught it? Absolutely. I should’ve caught it. Was I extremely busy as governor? I can’t even describe to you what it is like on a daily basis as governor. This was not on the top of my list. This was not something that I was looking at every day. I’d get a text and it just kind of glance through it. I’d say, “Good,” and I would go on and try to work on something really important for state government.

MT: Let’s say the welfare thing didn’t even happen and you’re working to help this company in other ways during your time in office, using your status as governor to assist this company.

Bryant: I did it for many companies, though.

MT: Right, but then take a deal with them two days after leaving office? 

Bryant: I didn’t.

MT: Agree to (take the deal), move in that direction. But it got derailed because of the arrests.

Bryant: OK, so your theory is that if the arrests had not been made, I would have taken a deal?

MT: That’s what all of the messaging, and the meeting and the conference call, that’s what that all suggests. 

Bryant: OK. So I was saved by the fact that the director of Human Services and Nancy New were indicted. That’s what saved me? Two people, one of my agency directors, Nancy New, and others were indicted? If not, I would’ve carried out this nefarious scheme? 

MT: I mean, I’m not calling it nefarious. It’s a deal that you made with a company that you were helping while you were in the office–

Bryant: Well then why would I have stopped it with those arrests if it was OK? If not nefarious, if it sounded OK, it looked OK. And oh by the way — I’m not sure, and I’m just saying this out loud, but I’m not sure — I never ran it through the proper channels to see if there would have been anything wrong with it. Again, I didn’t want stock in that company. What good would it have done me? What was that stock worth? Probably very little, probably very little. So I’m going to put a 30-year history of public service on the line for some stock that’s worth, not worth anything? Why would I do that?

MT: So after the arrest in early 2020, you texted Jake about his company’s involvement in the scandal, you know, sending him the news story and that kind of thing. And he told you that he had been subpoenaed–

Bryant: So what did I — read the text for me, please. 

MT: He told you that he had been subpoenaed and you responded, “Not good…” And I was just wondering if you would tell me–

Bryant: What was my question on that, though?

MT: It was, “Is this your company in the second line?”

Bryant: Yeah, “Is this your company.” I wasn’t even sure Prevacus was that company. That’s, I’m just sorry. 

MT: He said, “Yes, I got subpoenaed and just gave them everything. I was clueless.” And you said, “Not good…”

Bryant: Yeah, it wasn’t good. I was, I was angry.

MT: What was going through your mind? You were angry.

Bryant: Anger. Anger. How in the world could this have happened? Didn’t I ask him, “Did you get TANF money?”

MT: That was five days later. I think I was going to get to that. But I just wanted to know, kind of, what was going through your mind at the moment. 

Bryant: Anger. 

MT: Yeah. You clearly cut ties with Jake’s company by texts the morning of February 10 — five days after. The same morning, Shad White went on the radio to call you the whistleblower and said you were “comfortable letting that information out now.” Can you tell me about your conversations with Shad White, either that morning or leading up to his radio spot? 

Bryant: I just don’t remember. I don’t remember the details of it. You’d have to ask Shad. 

MT: I’m just kind of honing in on “comfortable letting that information out now.” Like, what were the considerations there?

Bryant: I don’t know. I think Shad just wanted to know as governor, “Is it OK if I tell people that you’re the whistleblower?” 

MT: And what did you say? 

Bryant: Well, “Yeah, I’m OK with that. I’m OK with letting people know that I’m the guy that called you, that I’m the first guy that asked for this to be investigated.”

MT: And then on the February 10, you said: “I was unaware that your company had ever received TANIF (sic) funds. If some received anything of benefit personally, then legal issues certainly exist. I can have no further contact with your company.” So that was kind of the official cutting of the ties. And you said, “Did you receive TANF funds?” And he said, “Our contract was with MCEC. That’s all I know.”

Bryant: OK. Is there more to that exchange?

MT: There is. I don’t have it here, but I believe you said, “You will be contacted.”

Bryant: Right.

MT: And so that was kind of the end of it. 

Bryant: But if you notice, when I asked him, “Did you receive TANF funds?” he said, “I received funds from MECC” or whatever that group is. He didn’t say, “Well you know I got TANF funds. You helped do that.”

MT: Right. I mean, I don’t think anyone outside of public policy people at these agencies really, you know, knows what TANF is, or what pot of money it’s coming from. I mean, Brett Favre never said, “We’re getting TANF” either.

Bryant: Oh, I think you’re right. I don’t think Brett knew it. I don’t think they knew it. I didn’t know it.

MT: But you were told that they were receiving funds from the state of Mississippi.

Bryant: I was texted, and I assume in today’s world, we have to say that’s undeniable evidence. But I did not carefully review those texts. And so it simply got by me. That’s all I can tell you. But again, had I read it, I would have said, “Well, somebody’s going to make sure this is legal.” There are people out there, the attorney general, the auditor, there’s folk checking on it. So I can rest assured that it’s just not going to get out there without somebody knowing that it’s legal to be able to do that. 

MT: Wait, so are you saying that was what you were thinking about? 

Bryant: No, but I’m saying if I had thought — I don’t remember seeing that. I don’t remember my alarm going off. I don’t remember saying, “Wow, OK, let me check on this further.” But, had I seen that, and said, “Oh, well they got some money. I wonder how that happened. Well somebody over there will make sure that they’re doing it right. The attorney general will make sure it’s okay. They’re going to have to go through DFA or somewhere. There’s going to be a lot of checks and balances involved.” So I rested on the assurance that there were people out there making sure these things didn’t happen. 

MT: And to be clear, though, you were also working for Joe Canizaro to bring a development to Tradition and Prevacus was going to be that company because that was what conversations were taking place in January of 2020.

Bryant: Possibly. Possibly. I was talking to Joe about a number, there were a number of possibilities. 

MT: Right, but the whole deal is that Prevacus’ standing was important for you to—

Bryant: Oh no, no, no. This was just one conversation in meetings that took place all the time. We could have gone down there and had a discussion and everybody say, “Nah, this is not going to work out. Let’s get back together.” This was not like, “I need to get this done.”

MT: But why were you “getting on it hard” then? 

Bryant: Those are the type of things that I say: “Let me get at it. I’m going to get on it hard. I’ll take care of this. Let me get, uh, after this.” I mean, it’s just a response that I have. 

MT: I mean, from what I can gather, the arrests derailed this arrangement.

Bryant: It probably did because I would have immediately after I found out and verified and recognized that he gotten money from the state, I would have said, “That’s it.” 

MT: So let’s play this out. So let’s say the arrest didn’t happen on that date, you met on the date that you planned to at Tradition with Joe Canizaro. He agrees to invest, you get company stock, which was discussed, and you had talked about that possibility. The arrests come later. Now you’ve taken ownership of something that is wrapped up in this scandal.

Bryant: It would have been very uncomfortable and embarrassing for me. But look, again, the reason I was so adamant about, “Did you get TANF money” is, I just did not, I was not focused and aware that they had gotten this money. Even with that text, it just didn’t, it didn’t click with me until I read it in the newspaper. Had there not been any arrests, I would’ve thought, “Well, they hadn’t, to my knowledge, gotten any state money.”

MT: Even though you were texted that they got state of Mississippi funding. 

Bryant: I know, and I just absolutely missed it. That’s all I can tell you. 

MT: How did they even get state funding without you knowing? 

Bryant: I do not — because nobody came to me and said, “Oh, by the way, we’re going to give them some money.” Because that never happened in my office. People didn’t come and report to me that they were giving people state money. If it did, then we would have a meeting, one of our attorneys would come in, I would say, “Now tell me how this is going on, and tell me why you’re coming to me because you’re the director. You have authority to determine under the guidelines of the laws of the state of Mississippi who does or does not get money, not me.” If you asked me, “Could they get TANF money?” I can’t tell you with certainty whether they could or not. 

MT: Right. And it doesn’t matter that it’s TANF funding in this scenario. 

Bryant: Or state money. I couldn’t sit here and say, “Well, I don’t know, is there a grant somewhere or a way that they could get?” There possibly could be.

MT: Wait, so let’s go back to something you just said. You don’t make decisions about state funding?

Bryant: That’s right.

MT: About agency funding?

Bryant: That’s right.

(Editor’s note: A background conversation steers the interview conversation back to the stock deal Bryant appeared to try to make with Prevacus via text message.) 

Bryant: Before any agreement (with Prevacus was hypothetically made), it would have had to go through our internal review here with lawyers, and then we would have asked (Ethics Commission director) Tom Hood, “Can you review it?” We hired an attorney at Butler Snow to begin to review anything that we were doing so that we made sure. So yeah, it wouldn’t have just been, “OK, let’s go to work.” It’s just not that easy.

(Editor’s note: Bryant officially joined his firm, Byrant Songy Snell, about two weeks after he left office).

MT: So those conversations with Jake were happening on January 16, two days after you left office. So how do I know that the deal wasn’t a personal ownership not having to do with Bryant Songy?

Bryant: Because I never got anything of value. I never received any stock. I never took anything. I had, you know, all of that time to do it. And anyway, people who do bad things would have said, “Well, I know they’re arrested, but let’s just keep going here, down this path. That’s OK.”

But again, I go back and I know the texts and the scenarios and the way they were saying, “Oh, we want to do this. We’ll do this.” But I think that the important part here — would I trade a future with this firm, what would I give up 30 years of integrity over some paper? Over some stock of a company that barely existed? Why would I do that? I would have to be out of my mind to do that.  

MT: There were a lot of things people were doing on Brett Favre’s behalf that I don’t understand, so–

Bryant: Well, I’ll be glad to address those. What I was doing on behalf of Brett Favre?

MT: Yeah. So (newly appointed MDHS Director) Christopher Freeze said that you called him to meet at your office with Brett Favre and Nancy to discuss a project at USM that they wanted DHS to fund. Can you tell me about this meeting? 

Bryant: Sure, absolutely. And Brett wasn’t there, I don’t believe.

MT: That’s not what Christopher Freeze told me. 

Bryant: Ok, well then he was. I thought he wasn’t. I remember Brett coming one time. I wanted to find out where this project was.

MT: What project?

Bryant: “What is going on with that volleyball project at Southern Miss?” So I said, “Look, Brett wanted to meet. Let’s call him in. Let’s get Chris in there. Tell me about this.” Wasn’t that what the meeting was about?

MT: He just told me it was a project at USM. 

Bryant: Yeah, it was that volleyball project at USM. 

MT: And they were asking for funding. 

Bryant: Right. And what did he (Freeze) tell you we told him?

MT: Christopher told Brett Favre–

Bryant: “No.”

MT: –And Nancy New that they would have to submit an application through the RFP process. And then Nancy asked to meet him at his office afterwards to get the ball rolling.

Bryant: That’s right.

MT: And he said, “No.”

Bryant: And I stood up and I said, “No.” I mean, If I remember this meeting. I remember a meeting with Nancy New and Chris, and maybe it was another one, and me. And she came in one more time, “Volleyball, volleyball.” And she said, “My budgets have been cut and I can’t do all of these things. My budgets have been cut.” And that’s another thing: “Budgets are cut,” so I’m thinking somebody’s watching over spending. And then she said, “And oh, by the way, can we have the money for the volleyball?” And I said, “No. No, we’re not spending anything right now. That is terminated.” 

(Note: The next few minutes of the interview will publish when later parts of “The Backchannel” series publish. The following portion of the interview is how the three-hour interview ended.)

MT: What is your role? How much are you responsible for what happened at DHS? Getting to the heart of that question–

Bryant: Look, I’ll take my responsibility. Yeah, I was the governor. I wish I had been able to catch it. The moment I did, I called in the state auditor. Not just for a check. That was just the beginning, but go everywhere.

I never called him and said, “Just look at this and don’t look at anything else.” We’re going to find that bill where we put an independent auditor in there.

But yeah, I’ll take responsibility if we’ll also recognize the good things that happened in this state while I was governor and the hard work we put into it. Debra and I worked 12, 15 hours. No, you don’t want to say that. We were thankful to be able to do it. But Joey (Songy, former chief of staff, current business partner) will tell you, I mean, we worked 15 hours a day. It wasn’t to try to get rich. It was because we cared about the people in the state of Mississippi, and we wanted them to do better.

Did we, did I miss some things? Absolutely. And could I go back? I would bet, dare to say, that at some point in your organization, somebody would have said, “I wish we would have caught that. We missed that.” Things happen. Bad things happen, good things happen. You can’t control every one of them. You hope and pray.

And I’m a man of faith, Anna, of strong faith. I don’t go about that using it, but I would do nothing to violate my faith, my strong belief that I have a savior and he’s forgiven me and continues to forgive my sins and my failures. And to throw all of that away over, what, some paper stock? I don’t, I don’t think so. That just wouldn’t happen.

Thank y’all, gotta go see my grandchildren. They think Papa’s a pretty good guy.

The post Q&A with former Gov. Phil Bryant about Prevacus, welfare scandal appeared first on Mississippi Today.

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