News site CEO apologizes to Mississippi ex-Gov. Bryant over welfare comments

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — An executive at a news organization has apologized to former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant for remarks she made about him and the misspending of welfare money that was intended to help some of the poorest people in the U.S.

Mississippi Today published the apology from its CEO, Mary Margaret White, on Wednesday, a week after Bryant threatened to sue the nonprofit news website.

Bryant said in a certified letter May 11 that White made a “false and defamatory” statement about him when she spoke at a journalism conference in February.

“I misspoke at a recent media conference regarding the accusations against former Governor Phil Bryant in the $77 million welfare scandal,” White wrote Wednesday. “He has not been charged with any crime. My remark was inappropriate, and I sincerely apologize.”

White also wrote that she requested that the video of her comments at the conference be retracted.

A spokesman for Bryant, Denton Gibbes, said Thursday that the former governor's legal team was reviewing White's statement and had not decided whether to sue Mississippi Today.

Mississippi law says anyone who intends to sue for libel or slander must give written notice before a lawsuit is filed, and that a news organization has 10 days to issue a correction, apology or retraction.

A Mississippi Today reporter, Anna Wolfe, won a Pulitzer Prize last week for her coverage of the welfare misspending.

Bryant's letter May 11 also said Mississippi Today executive editor Adam Ganucheau and Wolfe falsely claimed in a podcast that Mississippi Today employees “had never stated that former-Governor Bryant had committed a crime.” Bryant has also demanded that Ganucheau and Wolfe apologize.

Mississippi Auditor Shad White announced in February 2020 that criminal charges were brought against six people, including John Davis, a former Mississippi Department of Human Services executive director who had been chosen by Bryant. The announcement came weeks after Bryant, a Republican, finished his second and final term as governor.

No criminal charges have been filed against Bryant, and he has said he told the auditor in 2019 about possible misspending of money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families antipoverty program. Davis and other people have pleaded guilty.

White has said the Mississippi Department of Human Services misspent more than $77 million in welfare money from 2016 to 2019. Prosecutors have said the department gave money to nonprofit organizations that spent it on projects such as a $5 million volleyball facility at the University of Southern Mississippi — a project for which retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre agreed to raise money.

The Mississippi Department of Human Services, with a new director, filed a civil lawsuit last year against Favre and more than three dozen other people and businesses to try to recover more than $20 million of the misspent welfare money. No criminal charges have been brought against Favre, and Bryant is not among those named in the civil lawsuit.