By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — One of the people being sued by the Mississippi Department of Human Services over allegations of misspending welfare money has filed a separate lawsuit against Gov. Tate Reeves, saying the Republican is trying to protect political allies including a former governor.
Austin Garrett Smith filed the suit Wednesday and described himself in court papers as “politically powerless.” Smith’s suit says Reeves should sue Republican former Gov. Phil Bryant, who was in office when prosecutors say money that was supposed to help some of the poorest people in the U.S. was instead spent on projects pushed by wealthy and well connected people.
“Reeves has actively shifted the focus of the MDHS lawsuit away from Bryant, despite overwhelming evidence of Bryant’s involvement,” Smith’s attorney, Jim Waide, wrote.
Reeves press secretary Shelby Wilcher said in response to questions about Smith’s lawsuit: “The State of Mississippi is fighting to claw back every single dollar that was misspent in the scandal that occurred before Governor Reeves assumed this office.”
The Department of Human Services filed a lawsuit in 2022 against more than two dozen businesses or people, including Smith and retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre. The ongoing suit seeks to recover more than $20 million of the roughly $77 million in welfare money that the state auditor said had been misspent between 2016 and 2019, during Bryant’s second term as governor.
Auditor Shad White said the misspending included $5 million for one of Favre’s pet projects, a volleyball arena at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Smith is a nephew of former Mississippi Department of Human Services executive director John Davis.
The state’s lawsuit says Smith received more than $426,000 of money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program from 2017 to 2019 for purposes not allowed by the program. It says Smith was paid from “under the guise” of providing services for two nonprofit groups whose leaders had close ties to Davis and Bryant.
Smith’s lawsuit says that several defendants in the state’s lawsuit, including Smith, have “little or no” property they could use to pay any judgment against them.
Smith’s lawsuit also says Reeves has improperly hired private attorneys to represent the Department of Human Services when that legal work should be done by the state attorney general’s office.
“Reeves has controlled the MDHS suit in order to advance his own political interests and protect his political allies,” Waide wrote.
Reeves is seeking a second term in the Nov. 7 election. The Democratic nominee for governor, Brandon Presley, said Reeves is tainted by the welfare misspending that occurred when Reeves was lieutenant governor and had power to oversee how the Department of Human Services was operating. Presley noted that Reeves had received campaign contributions from central figures in the scandal and that the governor’s brother, Todd Reeves, had sent text message to the state auditor asking White to praise Favre.
“Tate Reeves is too ethically compromised to lead this investigation,” Presley said Wednesday.
Reeves campaign spokesperson Clifton Carroll said in a statement: “It’s no surprise that some of the defendants who are being sued by the Reeves administration are unhappy because he is aggressively pursuing this case.”