Former Gov. Phil Bryant has constantly been in the news in recent weeks thanks to the reporting of Mississippi Today’s Anna Wolfe about his involvement in the welfare fraud scandal that engulfed the Department of Human Services that he used to oversee.
But back in the mid-2000s, then-Auditor Phil Bryant was in the news nearly daily regarding a different instance of government fraud: he was investigating the Mississippi Beef Plant scandal.
The Republican Bryant, a former deputy sheriff, had been projected then as a hard-charging investigator attempting to get to the bottom of how Mississippi leaders spent $55 million in state funds to develop a beef processing plant in rural Yalobusha County that stayed open for just three months — little more than a blink of an eye — before closing for good.
Today, Bryant is a former governor who says he has no idea how at least $77 million in federal grant funds intended to help the state’s poor climb out of poverty were misspent by his Department of Human Services. People who worked for Bryant are facing felony criminal charges related to misspending the funds, but officials haven’t accused Bryant of wrongdoing. Since Mississippi Today’s series published, however, some are calling for Bryant to be investigated.
Bryant said he was not paying attention to his text messages — obtained by Mississippi Today and first published in “The Backchannel” investigation — that showed former Southern Miss and NFL quarterback Brett Favre informing the governor that grant funds were funding a private drug venture that the Hall of Famer had invested in.
When Bryant later received texts about possibly receiving stock in the drug company in exchange for his help while in office, the governor responded, “Cannot till January 15th,” referring to his first day out of office. “But would love to talk then. This is the type of thing I love to be a part of. Something that save lives…”
Shortly after leaving office and after setting up a private consulting firm, Bryant again received the stock offer from drug company leaders. He replied: “Sounds good. Where would be the best place to meet. I am now going to get on it hard…”
During his beef plant investigation in 2004-05, Bryant chastised then-Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell for not comprehending the foolhardy nature of the state investing in the beef plant.
Steve Holland, then a colorful state representative from Lee County, boldly took credit, saying he and fellow northeast Mississippi representative, Billy McCoy, a former House speaker, “birthed” the idea of the beef plant during Natchez Trace commutes to the Capitol. Holland said they believed the project could be a Nissan Plant for rural Mississippi, referring to the auto manufacturing plant that had opened in Canton near Jackson thanks in part to significant state incentives.
Holland’s statement claiming credit was played on a loop on conservative radio. The same radio station decked out a recreational vehicle in beef plant paraphernalia and circled the Capitol reminding people of the fiasco. They said it would be only a matter of time before an ongoing federal investigation, aided by none other than Auditor Bryant, brought charges against those Democrats who “birthed” the beef plant.
During one radio interview at the time, Bryant said, “You know it is always difficult for me to talk about, but if I remember a report published where the U.S. attorney had told … Judge Biggers that we can expect more indictments, or another indictment would be forthcoming soon … Like I said, this is not over. Every day I’m spending time talking with the U.S. Attorney’s office as we continue this program.”
In the end, a handful of the beef plant contractors served time in prison. They pleaded guilty to embezzling state money and cutting corners that resulted in an already questionable project never having a chance. There were two contractors who pleaded guilty to essentially making campaign contributions to former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove with the expectation of receiving favorable treatment.
Bryant and the beef plant stayed in the news with people speculating that indictments of public officials were just around the corner. But federal prosecutors never charged Musgrove with any quid pro quo. None of the state lawmakers that conservative radio hosts said would face charges were ever charged with a crime.
Then-state Rep. Jamie Franks, D-Mooreville, tried to flip the script on the beef plant in his unsuccessful 2007 campaign against Bryant for lieutenant governor. Franks pointed out that McCoy had inserted language in the legislation “birthing” the beef plant an appropriation of $50,000 for Bryant’s office to monitor the program. Only $10,000 of the funds were spent, said Franks, who accused Bryant of only becoming interested in the project after it abruptly closed days after it opened.
“He simply didn’t do his job,” Franks said.
Bryant countered that he warned people early on of the infeasibility of the project.
At any rate, the facility the state built for the beef plant has now been utilized for nearly 15 years. Frozen food manufacturer Ajinomoto employs about 500 Mississippians at the site — maybe not a Nissan plant, but a significant number of jobs in rural Yalobusha County.
It is difficult to imagine any positive results will come from the welfare scandal and that misspending of $77 million. And today, the statewide conservative network that broadcast so much speculation about pending charges in the beef plant scandal is radio silent on the new revelations in the welfare scandal.